For a such a ferocious penchant in IP as Disney movies have, the connections between Cruella and 101 Dalmatians are often absent. The titular character in Craig Gillespie’s origin story is an underdog, an iconoclast, and a trendsetter, with some large mommy issues and a sense of pride in being both “brilliant and bad.” Her puppy killing ways, though, are pushed to the side. Taking the spotlight away from animal cruelty and onto glamour is the key project of this Dickensian-like film. The film’s five-person screenwriting team goes about rehabilitating Cruella de Vil’s image, by first delivering one of the more ludicrous pieces of self-mythologizing since we found out how Han Solo got his last name. I’ll stay away from the details, but trust me in that the Cruella of this prequel has a reason for disliking Dalmatians that’s sure to produce a hearty chuckle from all but the most credulous viewers.
Blending both Oliver Twist and The Devil Wears Prada, the film opens with the literal birth of Cruella, then winding through her childhood that’s marred by tragedy and redeemed by the kindness of two pickpockets, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). Eventually, though, the pair will be relegated to the role of bumbling henchmen. But they’re like brothers to the girl initially known as Estella (Emma Stone), landing her a job at an exclusive department store and encouraging her to follow her dream of becoming a fashion designer. Though she starts off as the janitor, Estella soon grabs the attention of the domineering Baroness (Emma Thompson), queen of the London fashion scene. The Baroness, it barely needs to be said, is both utterly fabulous and completely rotten — a cruel, spiteful boss who shamelessly takes credit for the creative work of others. That last character flaw is what leads Estella to remake herself as Cruella de Vil, an inscrutable fashion terrorist whose mission is to upstage the Baroness whenever possible.
Though it was first said that this film was somehow going to involve the “birth of punk,” Cruella‘s fashion is in actuality much more of a decades-spanning hodgepodge of cultural signifiers: from midcentury couture snobs, to androgynous glam rockers, with a tiny dose of ’60s Swinging London, and an undercurrent of proto-punk. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still plenty to roll your eyes at. Here, Gillespie continues his I, Tonya trend of being diet Scorsese; filling his film with winding Steadicam shots and over thirty needle drops to the point of occasional exhaustion.
At a PG-13 rating, Cruella is also one of the few Disney films that rides a line for being outright family-friendly: it has dark themes and a main character who refuses to rule out murder when directly questioned about her methods and is nearly two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes. Yet it also includes such family-friendly cartoon touches as the dog sidekicks who helps Cruella and company pull off a series of relatively harmless heists. The fashion-world setting and campy performances from its female leads suggest an arch approach to the material but the film takes the idea of a Cruella de Vil origin story so seriously that it ends up being unintentionally funny.
As an opportunity for Emma Stone to vamp in elaborate gowns, Cruella occasionally clicks. But the “too much is just enough” attitude that makes it visually large but also makes it a little sloppy in all the other departments. Elements are picked up and tossed aside like yesterday’s fashions. All the while, the film answers in great detail questions that are difficult to imagine anyone ever wanted answered in regards to the origins of Cruella. There are reasonable explanations for Cruella‘s mix of tones and influences. Maybe it’s been tailored for a specific audience of preteens who are too old for Disney cartoons but not yet old enough for actual amoral antiheroes. Likewise, perhaps the film’s creators wanted to do something different with the material, only to see any sharp splinters they introduced sanded down on its trip through the Mouse House sawmill. Cruella can’t really be described as a big swing; Disney tends to its IP too assiduously to genuinely allow for one of those. It’s assuredly more stylish than the recent Disney live-action outings, yet nothing can overcome Cruella‘s dopey vein of self-seriousness; a compromised commercialism that lacks both bark and bite.
Cruella is currently playing in theaters nationwide and streaming on Disney+