Disney should get a new theme park to jockey up against Fantasy Land and Tomorrow Land.

Disney should get a new theme park to jockey up against Fantasy Land and Tomorrow Land.

Call it Moral Relativism Land, where no bad guys are entirely bad.

Expect the kids to be greeted by Captain Hook, entertained by the magic of Jafar, and maybe go apple-dunking with the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Consider that Disney has been busy lately with what would have been an unthinkable strategy in Walt’s time: giving villains the spotlight. It started with Angelina Jolie black-swanning her way through two Maleficent movies, exploring the backstory behind the wicked witch who put Sleeping Beauty in a coma.

More recently, in the Marvel universe, Disney has given two comic book villains — Loki and M.O.D.O.K. — their own TV series.

Still, it comes as a surprise Disney picked the manic fashionista Cruella De Vil as the recipient of the studio’s villain largesse. This is the character, in the original One Hundred and One Dalmatians, intent on skinning cute little puppies to make herself a black-and-white coat to match her distinctive chromatically bisected hairstyle.

It’s a tall order to humanize such a fiend. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the studio picked director Craig Gillespie for the task. Gillespie, after all, managed to make audiences sympathetically reconsider figure-skating felon Tonya Harding in his excellent 2017 biopic I, Tonya.

Laurie Sparham / Disney Enterprises Inc.</p><p>Brilliant designer Cruella (Emma Stone, above) stages elaborate disruptions of fashion shows by her nemesis, the Baroness.</p>

Laurie Sparham / Disney Enterprises Inc.

Brilliant designer Cruella (Emma Stone, above) stages elaborate disruptions of fashion shows by her nemesis, the Baroness.

He pulls that neat trick with Cruella with this origin story, introducing the title character as a misunderstood but feisty little girl named Estella. As a child (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), Estella suffers the cruelty of her classmates because, it turns out, her shocking black-and-white hair naturally grew that way.

Estella is transformed into something more sinister after she witnesses the death of her mother at the hands, or rather paws, of three nasty Dalmatians owned by the wicked, filthy-rich fashion maven known only as the Baroness (Emma Thompson, having malevolent fun as the movie’s stylish antagonist).

Estella makes her way to London, where she grows up to be a grifter in the company of two companions Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, who played a more delusional minion in I, Tonya). Before long, her natural brilliance as a designer gets her in the employ of the Baroness herself. But by then, "Estella" (who dyes her hair red) becomes merely the secret identity of her monochrome-tressed alter ego Cruella, who establishes her own defiant line of fashion (think: punk provocateur Vivienne Westwood) in pointed contrast to the Baroness’s meticulous creations.

One can’t help think of the Joker in the way the film stages Cruella’s elaborate disruptions of the Baroness’s fashion shows, each more fiendishly cunning than the last. (Cruella’s arrival to one show in a garbage truck is a highlight.)

If a fashion showdown seems a strange focus for a Disney movie, Gillespie and screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara boldly commit, to the extent the movie got a PG-13 rating stateside. Disney traditionalists may be startled to discover one of Cruella’s conspirators, a Portobello Road boutique owner named Artie (John McCrea), is flamboyantly and proudly gay. This simultaneously serves to frame the nature of the heroine’s rebellious mission, while acknowledging the fact the original animated iteration of Cruella was not without her gay fanbase.

It’s a surprisingly well-made film, enriched by the remarkable detail of both the London setting and the startling fashions. (Viewers may likely go from this film to the R-rated Netflix series Halston just to sustain the couture groove.) In the title role, Emma Stone looks right — like a feral waif — but she tends to be outmatched in wickedness by Emma Thompson.

The only thing casual about the Baroness is her cruelty, and Thompson effortlessly plays it to the hilt.


Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

   Read full biography