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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Cruella is Disney's stylish but dark live-action origin story about the dog-napping villain from Disney's 1961 classic 101 Dalmatians. Set in the early 1970s, it attempts to explain Cruella's (Emma Stone) nefarious behavior in a way that will spark empathy in viewers. Think of it as Wicked by way of The Devil Wears Prada, with healthy dashes of Dickens and Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). While there's very little iffy content in terms of sex, language, or substance use (aside from one scene of implied drunkenness) -- and a couple of punches and tackles are played for comedic effect -- this is definitely a murderous revenge story. Cruella's life is in danger more than once, and a parent dies (partially on camera) as her child watches. The circumstances around Cruella becoming an orphan may be upsetting for kids who've lost or been separated from their own parents/families. Also, children bully young Cruella because she's different, and both Cruella and her eventual boss, The Baroness (Emma Thompson), are wickedly funny -- i.e., they're mean and treat others terribly in ways that may make viewers laugh but certainly aren't kind. On the positive side, the film is notably more diverse than previous Dalmatians movies, and Cruella clearly demonstrates perseverance. (Oh, and about that dog coat? You don't have to worry about it. At least not in this film.)
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What's the story?
Before she became known as a criminal with a savage affinity for dog-skin clothing, CRUELLA de Vil was known as Estella (Emma Stone), an orphaned girl living on the streets of London in the early 1970s, getting by on petty thefts and creative costumes. Her luck turns after she becomes an apprentice to London's most in-demand fashion designer, Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). But just when it seems Estella's dreams are about to come true, she's confronted by her tragic past.
Is it any good?
Sinisterly superb, this is a well-crafted, phenomenally acted, artistically drenched triumph that's a whole lot more responsible than most other villain-as-main-character films. And yet it does make a hero out of a criminal. So, there's that. It's easy to see why Disney might feel that the accolades for Joker and the merchandising bonanza for Harley Quinn should belong to them: They started this trend of reexamining villains with Maleficent in 2014. But Angelina Jolie's evil fairy wasn't relatable or aspirational, whereas many young fans wanted to be vandal Harley Quinn. Just like many cinematic villains before her, Cruella is portrayed here as misunderstood, the product of trying to survive in a cold, unsympathetic world. She overcomes Oliver Twist-like adversity to find herself in a Great Expectations-like relationship with her boss, Baroness von Hellman. When the past she's worked to put behind her comes back with a (literal) vengeance, she "snaps." And she becomes awful, as in awfully glamorous and rebellious. Deliciously played by Stone, Cruella seeks her revenge with such smashing style that it's easy to think that it might encourage some kids to embrace their own mischevious side.
That likelihood is encouraged by the fact that the movie is just so great, in every way. The art direction feels lifted straight from a Vogue shoot, and the fashion is fabulous. Just as punk rock was taking over Carnaby Street in London during the '70s, Cruella stands up to wreck entrenched sensibilities of stuffy haute design through bold, glam, rock-inspired creations, delivered with defiant disruption. The movie's robust soundtrack is loaded with iconic music from the 1970s; it feels exciting every time a note starts to play. The script is divine, and the actors seem to delight in their characters. Thompson's narcissistic fashion designer is such an ingenious character creation, and Paul Walter Hauser's take on henchman Horace is both authentic to the original animated depiction and a brilliant improvement. Another welcome modernization: bringing more diversity to Cruella's world. Some moments from the 1961 animated classic are revisited (Cruella driving recklessly with Jasper and Horace in her grand Panther De Ville), while the repugnant concept of turning dogs into a coat is dealt with in a satisfying way. There's no question that it's much harder to tell a dark story about a hero turned bad and keep it appropriate for younger audiences who love the source material, but the magnificent craftsmanship shown by director Craig Gillespie proves it can be done. Darling, let the black-and-white hair trend commence!
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Cruella experiments with treating others in a mean fashion but pulls back when she realizes she's hurting her friends. How does this compare to kids pushing social boundaries? How can we prevent or stop bullying behavior?
Why are villains/antiheroes often as compelling as heroes? Does Cruella's backstory make her more sympathetic? How does Cruella compare to other villain-as-main-character movies?
How does this prequel honor the original animated film? What scenes were similar, and what was changed?
What are the movie's messages around identity? Are those messages positive ones? Are people's personalities and choices determined by who their parents are?
How does Estella persevere through adversity to achieve her goals?
- In theaters: May 28, 2021
- On DVD or streaming: August 27, 2021
- Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong
- Director: Craig Gillespie
- Studio: Walt Disney Studios
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: Cats, Dogs, and Mice, Friendship
- Character strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 134 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some violence and thematic elements
- Last updated: August 25, 2021
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