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!