Who let the dogs out? ‘Cruella’ is a ‘wow’ of a movie

Dueling Emmas and eye-popping fashion from the Mouse House are good reasons to go back to multiplex

Emma Stone in Cruella. (Courtesy Walt Disney Co.)

Now that it may feel OK to venture out and into a movie theater after watching the latest flicks in the living room for more than a year, here’s a suggestion: See Disney’s “Cruella” in theaters on a really big screen. You can get it on Disney + and watch at home, but this delicious eye candy treat plays so much better in ultra-grand display.

As the two main characters, the film is fueled by dueling Emmas — the divinely, dastardly Emma Stone as Cruella and equally divine and dastardly Emma Thompson as the fashion designer diva, the Baroness von Hellman.

Emma Stone (center). Paul Walter Hauser (far left). Joel Fry (right). (Courtesy Walt Disney Co.)

It’s a live-action backstory about the rebellious early days of the legendary Cruella de Vil, the wicked dognapper from Disney’s 1961 “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” and the live-action 1996 “101 Dalmatians” starring Glenn Close, all based on the 1956 Dodie Smith novel “The Hundred and One Dalmatians.” There, I’ve caught you up enough. You don’t really have to be up to date on Cruella’s evil doings in her later years to thoroughly get engrossed in the prequel. “Cruella” is engaging enough to stand alone.

It follows Cruella, known at first as Estella, where she’s a child outcast because of her odd hair — one side is black; the other gray. She becomes an orphan after her mother suffers a cruel demise, which Estella believes is all her fault. So, she takes to the streets, meets up with a couple of pickpocket kids and they end up living the rest of their days in a London flat.

Passage of time has Estella, now grown in the late 1970s, and showing a flare for fashion design. She ends up getting a dead-end job in a high-fashion department store, but through an “only in the movies” twist, she’s discovered by the Baroness. Then the heat gets turned way up as the unspool begins to happen and we find out Cruella’s got a score to settle with the old dame. Cruella’s henchman sidekicks Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (”Richard Jewell’s” Paul Walter Hauser) add the usual comic relief, plus Bluebell as the thieving Chihuahua named Wink steals every scene she’s in.

Mark Strong as John the Valet and Emma Thompson as the Baroness in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. (Photo by Laurie Sparham. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

The film’s almost copycat throughline of “The Devil Wears Prada” is a mild distraction with the Baroness even tossing garments to her minions a la Miranda Priestly. Estella/Cruella is much aligned with the mousey character of Andrea “Andy” Sachs played by Anne Hathaway in the 2006 fashion-centered film. But that can all be forgiven when the movie comes into its own, especially with its jaw-dropping (and garbage-truck dumping) fashion moments. Created by designer Jenny Beavan, the designer fires up the fantastic as she references some of the best alt-couture designers, Alexander McQueen and Vivien Westwood, for instance, and, for the Baroness, classic Dior.

So, how much better can “Cruella” get? Well, there’s the blow-you-out-of-your seat soundtrack — a nonstop playlist of classic pop, rock, and punk anthems from the 1960s and ’70s that psychedelically colors the backdrop of the London setting. There are more than 30 tunes including tracks from the Rolling Stones, the Zombies, Supertramp, Doors, Blondie, The Clash, and Ike & Tina Turner’s 1975 growling take on Led Zeppelin’s 1969 “Whole Lotta Love.”

(Interview: Emma Stone talks about starring in Walt Disney Studios’ “Cruella” opening May 28.)

Director Craig Gillespie gives you so much to sink your teeth into that you may want to do a double take – see it once in the theater and then rinse and repeat at home. But it’ll cost you – It is offered through Disney+ Premier Access at $29.99 (in addition to the monthly $7.99 fee) or, if you have a subscription, wait until Aug. 27 when it joins the Disney+ collection.

Rated PG-13, “Cruella” is definitely not as kid-friendly as previous Crues. The movie may be OK for tweens and older, but younger than that, the goth-villainous is more “Dark Knight” than “Dalmatians.”

Running time is 2 hours and 14 minutes.

(Michelle Solomon is a member of the Florida Film Critics Circle.)

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