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'Cruella' review: Origin story is a wickedly stylish spectacle

Emma Stone stars in Disney's "Cruella."

Emma Stone stars in Disney's "Cruella."  Credit: Disney +

PLOT A young fashion designer taps into her dark side to take 1970s London by storm.

CAST Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Paul Walter Hauser

RATED PG-13 (some scary scenes)

LENGTH 2:14

WHERE Area theaters and Disney+ with Premium Access

BOTTOM LINE A wickedly stylish spectacle with a dark-sparkling turn from Emma Stone.

Has it already been nearly a decade since Disney’s animated "Frozen" spawned a million young Queen Elsas singing "Let it Go" at every talent show in the nation? That theme song captured the girl power spirit of the day: resilient, capable, emotionally healthy. Ah, but that was then! The world has become a darker, angrier place, one in which Elsa, with her pure heart and platinum-blonde braid, seems a little out of step.

Enter Disney’s "Cruella."

The origin story of Cruella De Vil, the dognapping villain from Disney’s animated classic "101 Dalmatians," "Cruella" is the anti-"Frozen," a delightfully dark fable about a good girl who grows up to be fabulously bad. Driven by a terrific lead performance from Emma Stone and set to a snarling rock soundtrack, "Cruella" inverts nearly every lesson that a children’s movie is supposed to teach, and does it with style. It’s one of the best triumph-of-evil movies to come along in years — not quite as masterful as "The Godfather Part II," perhaps, but certainly miles above "Joker" or "Birds of Prey."

"Cruella" introduces us to a girl born with outrageous hair — half-black, half-white — and a split personality to match. When she’s good, she’s Estella, but when she’s bad … well, you know. One dark night, Estella witnesses her mother’s "accidental" death at the cliffside estate of Baroness von Hellman, a ruthless fashion mogul played by a wonderfully icy Emma Thompson. It’s a primal scene worthy of Hitchcock, and it’ll resurface when a grown Estella, now surviving as a pickpocket in 1970s London, falls into von Hellman’s employ. Turns out Estella is a brilliant designer as well, but this town may not be big enough for both of them.

It’s no surprise that one of the screenplay’s contributors is Aline Brosh McKenna, of "The Devil Wears Prada," but this movie is no knockoff. Nor is it a retread of the live-action "101 Dalmatians," which featured a polarizing, over-the-top Glenn Close as Cruella. Yes, it borrows liberally from many a source: There’s a Dickensian quality to Cruella’s fellow street urchins and future henchmen, Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), and things take a "Velvet Goldmine" turn when Estella uses her proto-punk fashion sense to outdo her ruthless mentor. At bottom, though, this is a complex and surprisingly deep-reaching back story of a cartoon villain, rich with psychological truths and powerful symbolism.

Director Craig Gillespie, who clearly has a thing for bad girls (his last film was "I, Tonya," about the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding), surrounds Stone with eye-popping sets and imaginative costumes, most notably a ratty ballgown with a train made of trash. At times, the movie feels like a Busby Berkeley musical, albeit with songs by The Clash and David Bowie.

"Cruella" peaks when its shattered hero, smeared with last night’s mascara, delivers a monologue bidding a final goodbye to Estella. It’s a different kind of girl power, one that declares an end to polite smiles and society’s rules. Cruella may be a dubious role model, but she’s an irresistible figure. Don’t be surprised if your daughter comes home one day with that hair.

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