This isn't so much a prequel to 101 Dalmatians – neither the 1961 animated original (which spelled out One Hundred and One) nor the 1996 live action retread with Glenn Close – as it is a reimagining of its famous villainess Cruella de Vil, here played by Emma Stone.
I've never seen either of the Dalmatians films, but going into this movie, it's not necessary to know anything about Cruella beyond what basic pop cultural literacy requires: she's a baddie, she's got black and white hair, she's a fashion designer, and she wants to turn those sweet little Dalmatians into a fur coat.
Cruella keeps the character's hair and vocation, scales down the evil significantly, banishes her cigarette holder, and even throws her relationship with Dalmatians into question. We are introduced to her as a young English girl named Estella Miller, whose kind and gentle mother suggests the "Cruella" alter ego to describe Estella's bad moods. Her unusual hair brands Estella a freak in her 1960s childhood, so after her mother's untimely death, Estella runs off to London, joins a pair of pickpockets who will become her henchmen Horace and Jasper, hides her mutant hair under burgundy dye, then grows into a fashionista/thief who sounds just like Emma Stone with a British accent.
The film's primary conflict is between Estella/Cruella and a merciless queen bee fashion designer known only as The Baroness, played with relish by Emma Thompson. In a nutshell, Cruella is a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and a Tim Burton movie. Although an ultimately predictable backstory emerges, the film is at its most fun when it indulges in Cruella's public fashion pranks meant to embarrass The Baroness, even as Estella meekly slaves under her like a burgundy-haired Clark Kent. And the costume design by Jenny Beaven is absolutely fabulous. There's a good reason the bulk of Cruella unfolds in 1975: the protagonist is so closely modeled on punk fashion pioneer Vivienne Westwood that the film could almost be interpreted as a fantasy biopic.
Cruella delivers clever, witty entertainment, with a likable cast (including a scrum of young character actors – some recognizable, some not) camping it up like pros. The wall-to-wall pop music soundtrack is occasionally inspired but often too obvious, and I would have liked to have seen Emma Stone crank up the crazy a little more. Those are the only qualms I had with the film, which has all the makings of a cult classic – in the Disney sense, of course.