“Cruella” is a vaguely retro costume party with a doggedly retro playlist — a treat for fashion-curious kids whipped up by the boomers and Gen Xers who hold the keys to the Disney I.P. storage locker. And there’s a millennial Oscar winner in the titular role. When I say it has something for everyone I’m not being sarcastic, though I’m also not being entirely complimentary.
This revisionist supervillain origin story, directed by Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”), doesn’t offer much that is genuinely new, but it nonetheless feels fresher than most recent Disney live-action efforts. There’s some visual wit and pop sparkle in the mildly Dickensian tale of how Cruella DeVil, the notorious pooch-hater of “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” came to be that way.
Reviewing the original animated adaptation of Dodie Smith’s novel for The Times in 1961, Howard Thompson observed that “the kids who survived ‘Psycho’ should survive Cruella.” Pretty scary stuff! Times change: No puppies, C.G.I. or otherwise, are harmed in this movie. Cruella — originally known as Estella and played by a harmlessly snarly Emma Stone — actually likes dogs (though she does have a specific grudge against Dalmatians).
This is not “Joker,” so Cruella’s transgressive energies are kept within the bounds of social acceptability and the PG-13 rating. Her motive is revenge, and her methods include fraud, theft and deceit, but the closest she comes to evil is occasional selfish insensitivity to her friends. She isn’t a monster. She’s an artist, and her theatrically outrageous misbehavior is a sign of her uncompromising creativity.
Cruella’s swaggering, eclectic spirit aligns with the film’s idea of London in the 1970s, its alleged setting. The aesthetic is raffish, glammish and also punkish, and the musical selections zigzag through the years from “Their Satanic Majesties Request” to “London Calling.” No deep cuts here, just an eclectic sampling of Dad Rock Essentials. The choices can be a little on the nose — Stone’s first appearance as the grown-up Estella, with hair dyed crimson, is heralded by “She’s a Rainbow” — but my middle-aged ears were not offended. Special kudos to Gillespie and Susan Jacobs, the music supervisor, for including the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” a song with no kinky subtext whatsoever and as such a perfect fit for a “Dalmatians” spinoff.
The oldies greatest-hits package, linked by Nicholas Britell’s elegant score, keeps things lively even when the plot turns draggy or hectic. Jenny Beavan’s costumes and Fiona Crombie’s production design, festooning posh department stores, bohemian thrift shops and couture palaces, engage the eye even when the characters wander through the city in search of coherent motives
Estella starts out as a renegade schoolgirl (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) with two-tone hair, and soon lands in London, orphaned and alone. She befriends a pair of pickpockets, Jasper and Horace, who grow up to be Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, providing cartoon-sidekick japery as the horizon of Estella’s ambition shifts from petty crime to high fashion. At that point, she adds a journalist (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and a used-clothing aficionado (John McCrea) to her retinue.
Estella’s nemesis and role model is a famous designer known as the Baroness, a self-described genius who recalls Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread” and, of course, Cruella DeVil in both her cartoon and Glenn Close incarnations. Luckily, the role belongs to Emma Thompson, who plays her as a haughty, feline predator alternately annoyed, enraged and charmed by Stone’s angry mouse.
The film itself traffics in less intense emotions, which makes it easy enough to watch but hard to care much about. Its main purpose is to remind you that other movies exist, which might describe Disney’s current business strategy as a whole. At best, it might also inspire you to spin some old records or play dress up with those weird clothes that have languished in the back of the closet through these grim athleisure months.
Did you ever wonder how Cruella De Vil, the vampy fiend from Disney's "101 Dalmatians," became evil enough to want to kill puppies and skin them for fur coats? You didn't? Ah, well—there's a movie about it, "Cruella." It stars two Oscar-winning actresses, runs two hours and 14 minutes, and reportedly cost $200 million, a good chunk of it spent on an expansive soundtrack of familiar sixties and seventies pop songs. It never answers the burning question posed by its own existence, though: what new information could possibly make us sympathize with the original movie's nuclear family-loathing, wannabe-dog-killing monster? The further away from "Cruella" that you get, the more its connection to "101 Dalmatians" seems a cynical attempt to leash an existing Disney intellectual property to a story that has no organic connection with it.
Directed by Craig Gillespie—who does a discount Scorsese, keeping the camera flying and the phonograph needles dropping, much as he did in "I, Tonya"—"Cruella" awkwardly combines a couple of popular modes. One is the origin story of a long-lived, brand-name character that didn't need an origin story: think "Solo: A Star Wars Story," "Pan," and the third Indiana Jones (the opening sequence of “The Last Crusade" showed Indy acquiring his whip, his chin scar, his hat, and his fear of snakes in the space of 10 minutes).
The other mode is the "give the Devil his due" story, represented on TV by dramas such as "Bates Motel" and "Ratched" and in cinema, with greater or lesser degrees of artistry, by Rob Zombie's "Halloween" remakes, which explored the abusive childhood of serial killer Michael Myers; by the billion-dollar grossing, Oscar-winning "Joker"; by Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which gave Roald Dahl's inscrutable, faintly sinister clown Willy Wonka a tragic childhood; by the "Maleficent" films (the first of which had soul, at least); and by Broadway's Wicked, which presented the Wicked Witch as a victim of bigotry who embraced her own stereotype and used it as a weapon against tormenters.
The "Cruella" screenplay is in that vein, or sometimes it tries to be. But it's a mess, and it often seems to pause to remind itself that it's supposed to have something to do with "101 Dalmatians." The script is credited to Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, from a story by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis. But although it was theoretically inspired by a Disney cartoon feature adapted from Dodie Smith's book, you could change the heroine's name and take out a handful of iconic production design elements (such as Cruella's yin-yang hair and Bentley roadster, and the spotted dogs) and have a serviceable feature in the vein of "Matilda," "Madeline," or "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"—or, for that matter, countless Charles Dickens film adaptations, wherein a plucky child or teenager navigates a world of useless or treacherous adults, becoming embroiled in plots to steal this object or expose that bad person.
Far from wanting to kill and skin dogs, a pre-Cruella girl named Estella (Emma Stone) owns one and dotes on it. As the story unfolds, we never see her being cruel to an animal or even saying an unkind word about them. She blames Dalmatians for the accidental death of her mother, a poor laundrywoman played by Emily Beecham; but that's more of a reflexive loathing, like hating the ocean if you'd lost a loved one to drowning. It's not as if she's sworn vengeance against canines generally. Our heroine (or antiheroine) is a sassy, plucky orphan who overcomes a life of deprivation on London's swingin' streets, joining up with a couple of buddies, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and running grifts and scams. A brilliant draftswoman with an eye for style, Estella gets a job at a big department store. In a fit of pique, she reconfigures a shop window display because it showcases a gown she thinks is ugly (altering it in the process), and is summarily hired by the store's biggest vendor, fashion designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). The Baroness is a staff-abusing control freak who nevertheless becomes the closest thing to a mentor and mother that Estella has had since her own mum's death.
Through a combination of incidents too tangled to recount here, the story morphs into an "All About Eve" riff about intergenerational rivalry between women in a creative workplace. Estella becomes increasingly resentful of the Baroness abusing her and stealing her glory; in time, she gradually learns what a vile person the Baroness is, and vows to humiliate and destroy her and usurp her spot as the top fashionista in London. All in all, not a bad setup for a knockabout comedy-drama set in what feels like an alternate universe—one that's more clever and colorful than the one we're stuck with.
But Estella needs to become Cruella De Vil, just as Arthur Fleck had to become the Joker and Anakin Skywalker had to become Darth Vader, otherwise the production can't get a green light and a budget and end up in theaters and on Disney+. And so "Cruella," much like the half-charming, half-pointless "Solo," has to shoehorn bits of lore and backstory and fanwankery into the narrative, none more risible than the moment where the heroine decides that Cruella needs an equally colorful last name and takes it from a certain model of automobile. Did we need that? Isn't the wordplay on "Devil" and "da vil(lain)" sufficient? Apparently not, and of course, young children are going to eat that sort of thing right up, even though it’s (amazingly) even worse than the scene in "Solo" where the intergalactic customs official assigns the hero his last name because he's traveling alone.
It's a bummer, really, because—like many a "How did this person become the character we already know?" films—"Cruella" is filled with situations, set pieces, and moments of characterization and performance that suggest it had everything required to stand on its own two high-heeled feet, minus the guardrails of intellectual property owned by the largest entertainment conglomerate the world has ever seen.
Estella's rightful desire to punish a bad person, for example, is intertwined with her drive to succeed in business, a touch of psychological complexity that the script isn't interested in unpacking because it already has its hands full making Estella a lively character in her own right and simultaneously setting her up to become Cruella de Vil—a transformation that makes increasingly less sense the more you learn about the character. A pity, that. People in real life often do good things for bad reasons and vice versa, or use their trauma as an excuse to lower themselves to the level of the person they've decided is (to quote Bond's nemesis Blofeld) the author of all their pain. Because the film can’t, or won’t, deal with the material that’s right in front of it, it comes across seeming as if it wants credit for a sophistication it does not possess.
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