What should have been called, The Dogs of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Cruella DeVil), Disney is now trying to cash in on all that sweet sweet Harley Quinn and Joker movie money by switching it up and giving us a gritty, hard-core villain origin story. Oh, yeah!!
If you took The Devil Wears Prada, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Oceans 8, and spun it with outrageously wild punk-chic in the 1970’s era of London, you’d have this. Squeaky-clean Disney goes for the throat here in a diabolically clever and fashionably eye-popping adventure tale of Estella, born with curious black & white hair parted right down the middle. Growing up super independent and with a genius look for fashion, young Estella (excellent Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) is left an orphan when her mum (Emily Beechum) is killed. Boy, Disney sure hates parents, don’t they? Anyway, Estella grows up fast on the streets of London with the help of two pick-pocket orphaned kids called Jasper & Horace.
Fast-forward ten years and these Fagin rejects are now master thieves, but Estella (Emma Stone) wants more, and that includes being a fashion designer at the prestigious Liberty House. Through a stroke of luck (and some booze) her janitorial job there gets her the dream of a lifetime: designing clothes for the reigning queen of London fashion, Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). But the Baroness makes Miranda Priestly look like Joan of Arc as she is beyond eccentric, narcissistic, and just plain mean. Fortunately, she likes the designs Estella is coming up with and makes the shy newbie her apprentice.
BUT! Estella soon discovers something devastating about the Baroness that flips a switch in her, turning Estella from a sweet, innocent girl into a crazed, psychotic, single-minded woman bent on one thing: revenge!! And what better way to serve up a tasty dish of vengeance than with spectacular, in-your-face fashion!? With the help of her comic-relief pals, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and the vivacious gay owner (John McCrea) of a retro clothing store, Estella becomes Cruella, London’s newest, hottest, premier fashionista, mocking the Baroness and laying the groundwork for a dramatic and thrilling third act comeuppance.
After dismal rebooting/remaking of Mulan, Dumbo, Beauty & the Beast, Lion King, and others, it was finally nice to see a Disney film with biting wit, fun, entertainment value, and a wicked-cool story. While Dana Fox (What Happens In Vegas) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) may not have the perfect screenplay (it does have its share of gaping plot holes), what it does have is a winning origin story that works on many levels. It’s filled with twists and turns, dark humor and death, a costume designer’s wet dream, and a sumptuous production design. Estella’s transformation isn’t forced or rushed, and having the amazing Emma Stone in the title role is about as perfect as Emma Thompson’s twisted Baroness. Watching the two go at each other on-screen is a sheer delight; their chemistry just sizzles.
Coupled with Craig Gillespie’s (Fright Night, I, Tonya) wonderful, playful direction and that kick-ass soundtrack that we boomers know so well, this well-crafted movie is a crazy, fun, entertaining romp that’s definitely NOT for kids, even though it’s got cute dogs, slapstick and schtick, and some very funny moments. It also has dark overtones of loss, death, and infanticide. Check out the excellent supporting cast of underused Mark Strong as the Baroness’ loyal butler and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Estella’s newspaper friend, Anita Darling.
**Now showing in theaters AND streaming on Disney+ for an additional $35 “premiere” price!
101 Dalmations (1996)
Of all the animated films-to-live-action movies that Disney has thrown out and ruined, this is one that actually worked to a certain degree, thanks largely to the screenplay by the one and only John Hughes, the prolific writer who gave us Home Alone and Ferris Bueller. As in the original animated feature film, it’s still in London and our hero is still Roger Dearly (Jeff Daniels), but this time he’s American and a video game designer, not British and a songwriter. Oh well.
Anyway, one day at the park, Roger and his faithful Dalmation dog, Pongo, meet-cute a lovely British lady named Anita Campbell-Green (Joely Richardson), who also happens to have a beautiful female Dalmation dog named Perdy. After a funny, disastrous, prat-fall, stunt-filled meeting involving their dogs, they fall in love and get married. *sigh* Only in the movies, folks!
Later we learn that Anita works as a low-level fashion designer at the prestigious House of deVil, owned by the eccentric, ultra-glamourous, super-vain, and rich Cruella deVil (Glenn Close, perfectly cast). Her deep and obsessive passion for fur knows no bounds, even having evil taxidermist Mr. Skinner (John Shrapnel) on stand-by to make her furs out of any animal she chooses. After Cruella sees Anita’s dog, Perdy, she becomes intrigued (okay, make that obsessed) by Dalmation dog fur and spots.
Back at home, Pongo and Perdy have a massive litter of 15 puppies, but Roger hasn’t sold his new video game to support these new additions. Cruella offers to buy all 15, but is rebuked, causing her to fly into a rage and enlist the aid of her dim-witted henchmen, Dr. House and Mr. Weasly. . . I mean, Jasper & Horace (Hugh Laurie & Mark Williams) to steal the puppies. Her endgame? With these 15 puppies and her other 84 stolen Dalmation puppies, she plans on skinning them all to make herself the ultimate luxury winter coat! Yuuckk!! As Roger and Anita call the police about the stolen puppies, Pongo & Perdy strike out on their own to rescue their children.
It all comes down to a quite silly and slapstick third act in an old country estate where a bunch of super-smart animals outwit the dumb humans and get all the puppies back to safety, while hijinks ensue that would instantly kill (or seriously maim) any normal human being. Even Cruella gets caught up in a finale with some barnyard animals that is quite literally a messy show-stopper. Needless to say, in the end the bad guys lose, Roger gets his reimagined “Cruella-enhanced” video game sold, and all 101 Dalmations now live together in peace and harmony.
Director Stephen Herek (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Disney’s The Three Musketeers) knew how to mine comedy, farce, and slapstick with Hughes wacky script, nevertheless you couldn’t get away from the fact that Cruella wanted to kill a bunch of innocent little puppies in order to wear them as a coat! I mean, c’mon! HOW do you make that funny?? For adults and tweens, the abundance of comedy and exaggerated Home Alone style mayhem was there, but for kids, it was just plain horrifying when Glenn Close showed up wearing her black & white/two-tone fright wig and letting loose with that scary cackling laugh! I was laughing, but the kids were hiding their eyes.
Sure, Richardson and Daniels were the perfect couple, but let’s face it, Close stole the movie every time she showed up and Herek knew how to perfectly frame her for the camera. Another inspired madness was the perfect casting of Laurie and Williams as Cruella’s henchmen. These two should have had their own BBC series, as their chemistry was like Jeeves & Wooster or Laurel & Hardy in their comedic timing. The movie spawned a dismal, forgettable sequel, 102 Dalmations, and a video game based on the one shown in the movie (nice tie-in!). It also saw an upswing in the purchase of Dalmation puppies, something the ASPCA denounced, as many were returned months later to shelters.