Before Cruella De Vil (“if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will”), there was Estella. Back in the 1960s in England, Estella, a girl with a shock of half-black and half-white hair and a rebellious temperament, dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Her ambition is stoked by a fashion show but somewhat marred by the fact that her mother dies at the event.

Never you mind: Estella makes her way to London, where she teams up with the thieves Jasper and Horace. By the 1970s, Estella is using her skills as a seamstress to create disguises and carry out a series of successful heists.

A dream job at an iconic atelier run by the Baroness Von Hellman (Emma Thompson) gives Estella (Emma Stone) the opportunity to explore her talent. Unfortunately for Estella and this movie, the Baroness is a self-obsessed tyrant who terrorises her staff and takes credit for their work.

The screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara works overtime to show this successful woman being put in her place by another up-and-coming woman. It’s zingy and often wickedly funny, darker and more twisted than the average Disney production, but also as wafer-thin as the cucumber slices that the Baroness is so fond of. The 134-minute movie is out on Disney+ Hotstar.

Emma Thompson in Cruella (2021). Courtesy Walt Disney Studios.

Cruella follows Maleficent, another revisionary take on a classic Disney female villain. Maleficent, based on Sleeping Beauty, found believable ways to create unlikely empathy for the titular witch who curses a princess and robs her of her childhood.

Cruella De Vil, a one-note character from a children’s book that spawned the animated movie One Hundred and One Dalmatians and a live-action remake, is a challenging candidate for a rewrite. The book and older films revolved around a deranged fur-obsessed fashion designer who wants to make a coat out of actual Dalmatians.

Cruella has many nods to the Dalmatians films, including a mid-credits sequence that links up to the announced sequel. Estella is no canine-hater. She adopts a scruffy stray named Buddy, and gets along equally fine with Horace’s one-eyed critter Wink. Whatever the divergences between the previous films and the origin story, the dogs are consistently paw-some.

The real battle of wills isn’t between human and beast but one beastly human and another who is more like her than she cares to admit. Cruella’s psychosis in the Dalmatians films is transferred belt, buckle and shoe to her older adversary.

A woman – a child-hating and vain woman whose confidence and success are built on ruthlessness and villainy – remains the object of hatred. The neat binary between good and evil women that governed classic Disney movies more or less survives the update, even as it takes other daring risks with the template.

Craig Gillespie directs the twist-laden plot with visual flair and oodles of nastiness. Estella’s transformation into Cruella jolts her loyal co-conspirators. Jasper (Joel Fry) is especially perturbed by Estella’s increasingly uncanny resemblance to the Baroness. Gossip columnist Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and vintage fashion store owner Artie (John McCrea) are among those who fan Estella’s diabolical side.

The conceit is steered by an excellent cast of actors. Emma Stone, hugely watchable as Estella/Cruella, finds the heart in the heartlessness. Stone’s raspy, sardonic voiceover sets the tone for a movie that embraces its darkness but is also blind to its questionable gender politics.

Emma Thomson is superb in a part whose only shade is black. “Gorgeous and vicious, it’s my favourite combination,” Thompson’s Baroness purrs, adding herself to the slot in the Disney rogues’ gallery that has been vacated by Cruella. The classic as well as fashion-forward costumes by Jenny Beaven are spectacular.

Cruella (2021).