A movie following the youth of a cool, punk rock Cruella, the would-be murderer/wearer of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, is a premise that’s chances of success seem as thin as the skeletal animated villain herself. Other live-action entries from the Disney Industrial Complex’s Nostalgia Division seem merely like superfluous wannabe upgrades, like Ted Turner’s misguided colorizing of black-and-white movies in the ‘80s. While still based on making money from the company’s vaultful of classic animations, Cruella is a bit more ideologically confounding. Draping a polka-dot pelt over The Devil Wears Prada may lure some looking for family-friendly entertainment to its well-performed fast fashion, but even those squarely in Cruella’s campy camp might not find its stylish hate couture a perfect fit.
From the very start of young monochrome-dome Estella’s journey to Cruella—where she and her long-suffering (and quickly killed off, in hilariously horrifying fashion) mother go through a sassy growing-up montage—the odd collage of tones and themes assembled by director Craig Gillespie and his gaggle of scripters could convince you that it’s all intentional. Power clashing. Loud and garish, with a style that’s just as likely to bring a smile or a sneer to your face, the film does eventually find (then abandon, then re-enter) its groove with a raucous bunch of musical montages, a confident cast and some genuine laughs.
As newly orphaned Londoner Estella (Emma Stone) makes friends with her future henchmen, she’s still got her eyes on the big time: Fashion design. She makes her mark in a familiar yet entertaining sequence, impressing Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) and fully transitioning the film into The Devil Wears Prada territory (which makes sense, as Prada writer Aline Brosh McKenna penned the first draft of the script). The Baroness owns some extremely evil-looking Dalmatians that are more Cujo than Pongo (and their relationship to Estella will likely leave you cackling in disbelief), a giant manor and London’s premiere fashion house. Of course, Estella wants von Hellman’s success—and her eventual transition to the darker “Cruella” persona is motivated by a complex mix of loathing and admiration for the merciless mogul.
It’s here that the film struts its stuff, with the central Emmas savoring their roles. Stone is theatrical and clownish in the best way, wearing the over-the-top expressions that’ve sprinkled charm into her other roles like costume jewelry. Seeing her display these in a tragicomic farce even more ridiculous and flowery (and possessing an equally complex central dynamic between Stone and its matriarch) than The Favourite would be a treat on its own. Thompson makes it a 101-course meal. Lifting from Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly—cartoonifying her more than if she was actually rotoscoped—Thompson’s evil is casually superior and severe. One-liners fly out like darts, downing everyone in the room until she finishes off her diatribes with a drizzled poison delivery and contemptuous stare.
And everyone looks great while it happens. If you’re going to make a movie about high fashion and your lead character is Cruella de Vil, your clothes better deliver. Costume designer Jenny Beavan’s work is downright fabulous, and will likely get her another Oscar nod after most recently winning for Mad Max: Fury Road. While everyone is always impeccably styled, Stone is constantly changing outfits into wilder and more elaborate ensembles as her character grows in creative confidence. In fact, the biggest mic drops of the film come from its jaw-dropping dresses: One moment featuring a garbage truck is a particularly extravagant bit of sartorial effectwork.
This excess and verbal sparring can get a bit dull over the film’s languishing two-hour-plus runtime, as anything repeated to death can, but some winning comic performances (Paul Walter Hauser’s Horace makes the most of his gags alongside a one-eyed little Chihuahua) rally the film when its style flags. Sometimes the humor fails to connect—poor John McCrea’s Artie is buried under a blanket Gay Best Friend designation—but it’s usually sharp enough to give the teeth of the film’s deadly Dalmatians a run for their money. That said, other than the jokes, it’s all style. If not in one of the many delightfully bitchy tête-à-têtes with which the film’s bevy of writers arm Stone and Thompson, Cruella’s in a florid musical montage. Every other scene features an extravagant needle drop, ranging from Queen to Nina Simone to The Clash, that seems like it’s trying to prove its coolness bonafides.
Unfortunately, though its characters can hold DIY, Zoolander’s Derelicte-like runway shows and sing The Stooges til the dogs come home, Cruella often veers into that Disneyfied corporate mall-punk of The Nightmare Before Christmas Hot Topic apparel. A cardinal rule is that if your film can afford a jukebox of punk songs for its soundtrack, your film isn’t punk.
These musical moments—which highlight some of Gillespie’s flashier shots and hint at the weird, glitzy, bittersweet fun he injected into I, Tonya—are accessorized with a dash of Unnecessary Prequel detail, tying up every last little thing you never wanted to know about. It’s annoying through and through, as always, with Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s thankless role as Anita Darling being one of countless examples. Dead-end at best, offensively tropey at worst, it’s one of many that create far more problems for the film than any Easter eggy pleasure. The risk-reward for the writers, willing to be dragged to death for their dumb decisions in hopes that they may earn—from the most optimistic Disney fanatic—a smirk of recognition, should probably be reassessed. Those nearer the opposite end of the Disney-obsessed spectrum will be more inclined to jeer the convoluted stretches of internal logic the film takes to get its warped characters towards their next step in the canon.
Making these leaps would be more understandable if the plot or emotional beats landed in any way. Jasper (Joel Fry, charismatic as can be) keeps trying to bring Estella back from the Cruella brink. Don’t kill dogs, he says. Don’t kill the Baroness, he explains. Generally a man of reason. And Cruella, for her part, agrees…for now, I guess. But we know this impulse is only suppressed. We know Cruella eventually commands her childhood friends to become dog-skinners. It’s here that the movie’s existential crisis matches its more immediate narrative problems. The film’s very existence asks us to both know all about Cruella’s future—so we get the jokes, so that we understand the references and hell, so we go out to see this movie instead of just streaming the far-superior Prada—while also ignoring it completely—discarding it when the movie tires of it like last season’s fashions, so that its character arcs and story makes any kind of emotional sense.
Caught between these conflicting expectations, it’s hard to appreciate Cruella as a whole. It’s overlong, with endless endings, and invites more conversations about it as a curious corporate product than as a cohesive movie. But it can also be perversely enjoyable with its flashy playlist-while-playing-dress-up aesthetic and brash, heightened central actresses—after coding villains as queer for decades, that camp is as front-and-center as ever. Cruella is a perhaps inherently flawed film, but whether its dark-but-Disney strangeness intrigues or repels, there’s often something to love and loathe in equal measure.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writers: Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis
Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jon McCrea
Release Date: May 28, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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