There are two things I'm particularly allergic to when it comes to movies. One is Disney turning its animated properties into live-action films. Mulan was fine, but Dumbo, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast were, at best, unnecessary. The other is origin stories designed to make us empathize with great villains. They almost never work, because giving them sympathetic backstories makes them less scary. Maleficent, Hannibal Rising, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning all proved this. Don't even get me started on Joker. Because of these allergies, Cruella pretty much had two strikes against it going in. Nevertheless, the picture won me over, thanks to the performances of the two stars and some appealing weirdness.

Famed 101 Dalmatians villain Cruella de Vil is the subject here. We first meet her as a young girl named Estella, encouraged by her mother to cover up her two-tone hair and calm down her rebellious streak. After a tragedy takes her mother's life, she ends up on the streets, befriending two child thieves, Jasper and Horace, who school her in the art of pickpocketing. The boys become her de facto family.

Then the story jumps ahead to early adulthood. Estella (Emma Stone) is still hanging around Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), but she dreams of becoming a fashion designer. An opportunity arises when she gets a menial job working for the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a fashion maven with a mean streak and an acerbic wit. Estella eventually impresses her boss with stylish designs, allowing her to work her way up in the company. After discovering a hidden connection between the Baroness and her late mother, though, she unleashes the wild side again. The hair comes back out, her name changes to Cruella de Vil, and she does everything possible to ruin her now-rival both professionally and personally.

Did I mention that the Baroness owns Dalmatians?

Cruella stops far short of showing how the character becomes a psychopath who wants to kill dogs in order to make coats. That's a slight disappointment – and a likely open door for potential sequels -- although the film gets credit for at least making her an anti-hero. Yes, we're supposed to empathize with her, yet doing so isn't always easy because she's spiteful and vindictive. Touting an appropriate PG-13 rating, Cruella isn't for young children. The Baroness is, in her own way, every bit as mean, and a big chunk of the story is these two women ruthlessly trying to make each other's lives hell.

The movie's best scenes find Stone and Thompson going head-to-head. Both stars are outstanding here -- tough and fierce and darkly funny. Stone invests Cruella with a punk rock attitude, as well as a give-no-Fs personality. In scenes where she upstages the Baroness, the actress shows how much delight she takes in humiliating her enemy. There's joy in her malice, which indicates the full-fledged lunatic she will later become. Thompson, for her part, gives the Baroness a profoundly narcissistic quality that makes her casually dismissive of anyone she deems unworthy, i.e. just about everybody. When they spar, fireworks ignite. Neither shies away from making her character loathsome.

Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) tells the story with inventive camera movements and a ton of needle drops (some of which are inspired, others cheesy). Combined with excellent sets and costumes, Cruella has a style that makes the plot come alive. The film is constantly in motion, pulling you into this world where two formidable women clash. All of it is interconnected. One of the best scenes, for example, finds a garbage truck depositing a load of trash on the street in front of the Baroness' fashion event. To the tune of “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” by the Clash, Cruella springs out of the garbage, hopping on the truck as it drives away to reveal that the trash is actually a stunningly long, stitched-together dress. Big “moments” like that abound in the movie, where performance, visuals, music, and costumes all swirl together into something bold and exciting.

Fry and Hauser provide strong comic relief in their supporting roles. Laughs arrive whenever they pop onscreen. Cruella additionally benefits from something it doesn't have – a love interest. There's no dopey romance here. The character is in love with fashion. She doesn't need a man to bring her satisfaction in life.

Cruella is very slow to start, and 135 minutes is way too long for this sort of thing. Those factors hold it back somewhat. Regardless, the two Emmas are superb, and the edginess of the story is a nice deviation from what I expected. Anyone anticipating a squeaky-clean Disney offering will be shocked by how the film revels in nastiness. We know Cruella de Vil becomes a despicable person, so the tone is earned honestly. To sanitize that fact would be to do her a tremendous disservice. I'm glad Stone, Thompson, Gillespie, and their team had the guts to stay true to the legendary villainess. The approach is spot-on, and the movie is, for the most part, wicked fun.

out of four

Cruella is rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements. The running time is 2 hour and 15 minutes.