Walt Disney Pictures has gotten into a bit of a rut with its live-action films recently, choosing to take the safer road of remaking classic animated titles like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan instead of trying to break new ground. With Cruella, we get an entirely new origin story of one of Disney’s classic villains, Cruella de Vil from 1961’s 101 Dalmatians.
Even though I’m a fan of Emma Stone (who stars as both Estella and Cruella), I didn’t have especially high hopes for this film. I wasn’t a big fan of the 1996 live adaptation of 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close (who happens to serve as an executive producer on Cruella) and didn’t think de Vil’s backstory would be interesting enough to make a compelling movie, and would
just end up diluting what was such an iconic character.
Boy, was I wrong!
I enjoyed Cruella far more than I expected to. Here we learn what makes her tick, see where her sense of fashion and design came from, and discover what ultimately leads her to becoming the villain we all know from the original Disney animated film. And while she is just a straight villain in Dalmatians—what could be more heinous than wanting to steal puppies to harvest their fur for coats?—here Cruella is an anti-hero living on the streets and fighting for her adopted family against domineering fashionista The Baroness (Emma Thompson), who holds the London fashion world in her fist along with a secret to Estella’s past.
Beyond the writing and wonderful costumes and set dressing, you have to give much of the credit to the film being so entertaining to Stone, who is just so wickedly delightful and mischievous as Cruella. You really can’t help
CRUELLA AT A GLANCE
Disney goes punk (sort of), transporting the Dalmatians villainess’s back story to the world of mid-’70s London high fashion.
The extended color gamut lets things like the bright red of London’s buses really pop, providing great shadow detail and creating a more natural-looking image.
This isn’t a dynamic Atmos soundtrack, with most of the audio kept across the front of the room, but it does a good job of helping the film lean on its jukebox of classic-rock tracks.
but root for her even though you know where her path ultimately leads. The scenes featuring Stone and Thompson are also some of the best, and the idea to make Stone two characters with distinct looks and personalities allowed for the two to share more screen time.
We learn early in the film that Estella loves fashion and design, but she also has a bit of a cruel streak, a personality her mother refers to as Cruella. To fit in—and stay out of trouble—Estella pushes her Cruella nature aside, dyes her hair red, and lives as a creative and eager-to-please girl hoping to start a new life in London. But when things become too much for Estella to handle, she turns to Cruella—the wild black-white haired girl with a hard edge, sharp tongue, and cruel streak—to step in and take care of business.
Like every film released in the past year, Cruella had a bit of a twisty trail to market. Originally scheduled to be released theatrically on December 23, 2020, it was delayed to May 28, 2021 where it also simultaneously bowed as a Premier Access title on Disney+, maintaining the $29.99 pricing Disney has established. After less than a month in theaters, Cruella was released to digital retailers on June 25, including Kaleidescape, which offers the film in a full 4K HDR version with Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio.
While the filmmakers did loads to try and tie this prequel to the original animated title, they weren’t dogmatic about it, and they made changes (such as setting the film in the ‘70s) that helped to modernize the story. Retained are Cruella’s friends/family/henchmen Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and this pair provides most of the film’s comic relief (though I found the laughs to be more chuckles than guffaws, and some of the antics—such as chasing around a small dog dressed as a rat—will likely appeal more to youngsters.) Estella’s/Cruella’s relationship with Jasper also helps to humanize his character, as we see him wanting to accept his friend, but not always liking what that means, with Horace more content just trying to figure out, “What’s the angle?” to whatever scheme they were planning.
There is also a wonderful scene of Cruella maniacally driving a giant saloon through the streets, swerving back and forth crashing into things and hunching over the steering wheel with a crazed look that is a moment from the animated title brought perfectly to life. And absolutely stay through the first part of the end credits where the film really dovetails into the original.
Shot on Arri in a combination of 3.4 and 6.5K, Cruella’s video transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and images are clean, sharp, and detailed throughout. The filmmakers shied away from intense, tight, pore-revealing closeups on the Emmas, but even still we are given loads of detail throughout.
Fashion—specifically haute couture—plays a huge role in the film, and the costume design and attention to detail is fantastic and easy to appreciate due to the video quality. The sheer number of costumes worn by Stone and Thompson—let alone the numerous additional designs made for fashion shows and worn by party-goers—is amazing, and will likely garner Cruella an Academy Award nomination. With the resolution and sharpness of the video, you can easily appreciate the layers, textures, and small details that went into the many costumes, easily noting the different fabric weights, fine stitching, and design.
Shot on location throughout London, the film has an authentic feel to it. Whether it is the set dressing of London streets, a near-perfect recreation of the famous Liberty department store, a variety of estates—principally Hellman Hall—or numerous visits to Regents Park, a making-of doc included with the Kaleidescape download shows the extent to which the filmmakers went to cover every minute detail, including many things that didn’t even appear on camera. All of this makes Cruella feel like a real world. There are many exterior scenes, which look terrific, especially shots of London at night—with the many lights, buildings, and shadows—looking especially good.
The extended color gamut also lets things like the bright red of London’s buses or the light show at Cruella’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” outdoor fashion show really pop. Beyond just giving great shadow detail and a more natural-looking image, there are some eye-reactive uses of HDR, including headlights at night and the pop and flash of camera bulbs, some red-orange-white flames in a big fire, and the bright white sheen of satin material or the glossy highlights coming off black leather/vinyl.
Sonically, the soundtrack is the big star here. The film takes place in London in the 1970s, when the punk rock movement was starting to take hold, and features an extensive soundtrack of era-appropriate music including The Doors, Queen, Blondie,
The Clash, and The Rolling Stones. In fact, the music is like an extra character in the film, helping to establish the mood and emotion of nearly every scene, and giving it an edgier, punk vibe that fits Cruella and her fashion-design-sense to a T. Also, the music is given plenty of room to stretch its boundaries across the speakers and up into the height channels, providing a ton of space and presence. In fact, the expansiveness and immersive music soundtrack throughout Cruella is a great sales pitch for Atmos music in general!
Dialogue is clear and well presented in the center channel, with the exception of some of Cruella’s voiceover narration, which can be a bit forward-sounding.
I wouldn’t call this a dynamic surround soundtrack, with most of the audio kept across the front of the room, but it does a good enough job of serving the story. We do get some establishing ambience in scenes, such as park and street noises—cars and people in the distance, the sound of water in fountains, or another scene in a jail has off-camera whistles, phones, chattering, and the jangle of keys to place you in the moment. During another big moment, a swarm of bugs come flying out and then travels overhead and around the room before exiting to all sides. I did notice on moment that highlighted more the subtle detail of the soundtrack, when The Baroness is having lunch in a car and she throws her
trash—including a metal fork—out the window, and you can hear the delicate sound of the fork hitting the road.
While the film is mostly family-friendly fare—not a single swear or sexual moment to be found!—it does carry a PG-13 rating mainly for some intense themes (it’s implied dogs are killed) and peril (one character is left in a burning room to die). At over two hours, this also might be a bit much for younger kids to take on, and it definitely features a story with depth and themes designed more to appeal to adults.
Cruella is one of the most original live-action films to come out of Disney in recent years, and if it didn’t grab your attention in the theaters or on Disney+, now is the perfect opportunity to enjoy it in highest-resolution at home!
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.