Running time: 134 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some violence and thematic elements). In theaters.
Think of the delicious new movie “Cruella” as the “Joker” of Disney.
Like the pitch-black Joaquin Phoenix film, it explains the origins and psychology of an infamous villain — this time, Cruella de Vil from “101 Dalmatians.” How can we possibly come to understand and like a person who’s best known for plotting to skin adorable puppies and sew them into a coat? Who a lyric once described as “like a spider waiting for the kill?”
It’s actually quite easy, because the wondrous Emma Stone plays her.
The two-toned villainess wasn’t always Cruella, though. She was born Estella — with all-natural black-and-white hair — to a struggling single mom in Britain. A menace at school, teenaged Estella tells her mother she dreams of going to London to become a fashion designer, and so off they go to start a new life. But on the way, Mom gets killed under strange circumstances at a party (it really earns its PG-13 rating) and the orphaned Estella runs to the city alone. (The movie, in theaters Friday, is also available to stream on Disney+ for $30.)
That horrific introduction gives director Craig Gillespie’s twisty movie real gravitas, harking back to the heroes of “Oliver Twist” or “Harry Potter.” Estella’s early trauma and loneliness makes her a smart cookie with an axe to grind. And grind she does.
Arriving in edgy 1970s London, she teams up with pickpockets and eventual henchmen Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry), and through a series of mistakes, winds up working with a frigid fashion designer known as the Baroness (Emma Thompson, dry as kindling). It’s at that ritzy house that Estella’s sinister alter ego is born.
This film is so sexy and cool and punk rock, you forget all about that Mickey logo and Cinderella’s cutesy castle. Cruella starts out as a Banksy of fashion; a mysterious vixen who crashes glamorous society parties and causes a stir with stylish stunts. My favorite: She tumbles out of a garbage truck onto a red carpet and then, when it drives away, the trash becomes the long train of her dress. All of the production design is just as witty and dirty.
Thank God the entrancing Stone doesn’t fall into the same trap Glenn Close did in the 1996 live-action “101 Dalmatians” remake in which she was more outlandish and cartoony than the damn cartoon. Stone finds the fabulousness in spewing venomous insults while wearing couture and calling everybody “daaaarling.” Her transition from nice girl into Cruella de Vil is magic.
But know this: “Cruella” is also like “Joker” in another way — it doesn’t perfectly fit into what came before.
Don’t waste your time trying to connect the dots — hardy har har — to “101 Dalmatians,” because this movie is not so much a prequel as a distant relative. For instance, Cruella was not a fashion designer in the cartoon and Anita Darling wasn’t a newspaper writer. “101 Dalmatians” did not take place in the ‘70s because the ‘70s hadn’t happened yet. Also, the Dalmatians in this flick are total A-holes.
Enjoy “Cruella” as a decadent and exhilarating standalone, daaaarling.