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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Cruella is everything The Devil Wears Prada should’ve been — and then some.

The de Vil Wears Prada

Cruella (Emma Stone)
Cruella (Emma Stone)

Cruella comes with an interesting pedigree. Obviously, it’s based on the beloved 1961 Disney animated feature, 101 Dalmatians, which in turn was based on the 1956 children’s book by Dodie Smith. It’s directed by Craig Gillespie, who made the insanely entertaining and twisted movie I, Tonya, based on the true-life Tonya Harding ice skating scandal. It’s produced by Glenn Close, who, 20-some years ago, played Cruella de Vil in two live-action features based on 101 Dalmatians. On the other hand, one of the story contributors is Aline Brosh McKenna, who put way too much bleach in her screen adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s novel The Devil Wears Prada.

Given all that, there was enough reason to be cautiously optimistic Cruella — buoyed by the onscreen talents of Emmas Stone and Thompson — might be a passable if not totally forgettable entry into Disney’s bottomless recycling machinery.

But, to now throw out a word like “fascinating” to describe Cruella was wholly unexpected.

And yet it is.

Cruella’s turned out to be something along the lines of a Disneyfied spoof of Quentin Tarantino. The leading damsel of distress is a semi-family-friendly Harley Quinn and this backstory of a bad girl gone worse is a version of Joker Uncle Walt would (probably) approve.

There are some grim and grisly ideas masquerading under all the humor and style, so fair warning this isn’t another cuddly G-rated entry in the Dalmatians canon. With its PG-13 label, this is the type of thematically rich material that skews more toward older kids and adults who are ready to revisit a (likely) childhood favorite with more open eyes.

Cruel Couture

It all begins with young Estella in primary school. She’s a split personality if ever there was one; it’s even visibly apparent with her hair – one half is pitch black, the other half is stark white. Estella can’t help it; she’s a rule breaker. She’ll later go on to describe herself as having been “born brilliant, born bad and a little bit mad.”

There’s Estella, the nice girl, and there’s Cruella, the psycho chick.

Her patient, ever-loving mother — the sweetest woman on Earth — pulls her troublesome daughter from the school in the same breath as Estella learns she’s going to be expelled.

In those opening scenes, the humor is light as Estrella picks fights and gradually gets more and more disheveled, even spruced up with some scrapes and blood splatter. Things go dark when her mother dies — pushed off a cliff by a trio of Dalmatians.

What follows is a devious, subversive and clever ride through the world of high fashion in the 1960s and 1970s. The changing times are marked with a great soundtrack featuring the biggest hits of the day — it’s one way in which Cruella feels a bit more like Tarantino than standard family fare Disney.

All Estella (Emma Stone, La La Land) wants to do is earn the respect of fashion’s top designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks). But the Baroness embodies all the narcissism and bloated ego of fashion’s greatest legends. She’s a tough broad and ruthless. With good girl Estella finishing dead last, it’s time for her inner dark side to resume full control and Cruella proves to be the ultimate multi-tasker by designing some stylish revenge along with some outrageous haut couture — aided and abetted by her two childhood friends, the buffoonish Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) and Jasper (Joel Fry, Yesterday), who also feature heavily in the original animated tale.

House of Cruel

Here's to the future of fashion
Here’s to the future of fashion

Getting back to that whole notion of this being for older, more discerning audiences, it’s a tough movie to navigate with impressionable young minds when the message is — essentially — to truly let your bad self out and “do you” regardless of the damage done. That’s where this one plays out like Joker, albeit in a decidedly more colorful and over-the-top fashion.

Disney has gone to the Dalmatians doghouse no less than five other times before this endeavor, always at the G-rated level. To enjoy Cruella requires nothing more than the most basic appreciation of the source material. But the greater the familiarity, the greater the opportunity to relish the devilish deviousness Gillespie pursues. Similarly, watching any number of Batman movies and appreciating all the lore that’s gone before serves to sharpen the enjoyment of watching Joker.

Cruella adds to the Dalmatians lore, but it also holds up well as a completely standalone work that lives and breathes in its own world, its own version of London.

As Estella so eagerly seeks to climb the ladder and reach the upper crust of fashion design, Gillespie takes viewers through the ugly underbelly of it all. That journey begins with a remarkable single take shot from the outside of Liberty, the department story that holds all of Estella’s dreams, into the store, around the main shopping floor, down the stairs, around corners... and into a restroom where Estella is on her hands and knees cleaning the floor.

So many great, great individuals share in those humble beginnings and share equally complicated life events that drive all sorts of outlandish, game-changing ambitions. But it’s a pleasantly malicious surprise that gangly, spindly caricature from the ‘60s could be revisited and retooled into this ambitious spectacle.