Synopsis: In 1970s London, orphaned petty thief Estella (Emma Stone) makes a pretty good living along with her partners-in-crime Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). However, the rebellious, iconoclastic Estella dreams of bigger things, and eventually gets her dream job as a fashion designer under the imperious Baroness (Emma Thompson). When a secret connection between Estella and the Baroness is revealed, the former makes it her mission to overthrow the latter from the pinnacle of high fashion, and adopts a new nom de plume in her quest – Cruella de Vil.
1. Cruella is an odd duck. And I don’t mean the kind that walks with a funny limp or has half its feathers missing or who quacks in syncopated rhythm. No, Cruella is more akin to a Frankenduck’s monster, put together by the hubristic Dr. Victor Frankenduck from the body parts of other ducks scavenged from the bins of Chinese restaurants, before being brought to life in a ghastly scientific experiment and cursed with an existence marked by pain, terror, and vengeance. (1) And like my completely original idea of Frankenduck’s monster, Cruella is a shambling, mismatched beast that somehow manages to be awe-inspiring in spite of its extreme flaws. It is, in a strange sort of way, the perfect emblem of the contemporary film landscape – a promising narrative fettered by the unavoidable realities of Brand Management and the pedantic nerdpicking (2) of a million forum posts and Youtube videos. It is the kind of movie that could only be made by committee, with all manner of appendages grafted on to maintain continuity with a forty-year-old movie and to appeal to all four demographic quadrants. And yet, I would be lying if I said I did not like it. It is a rollercoaster ride of a movie in terms of quality, with excellent highs and terrible lows, and while my opinion of it veered wildly from scene to scene (often within the same scene), I ultimately left thinking that it was a decent movie that could have been great without all the nonsense that surrounds the tentpole-franchise model of filmmaking (of which the House of Mouse is one of the, if not the, greatest offenders).
2. But first, a little context. Cruella is, as anyone who vaguely plugged into pop culture knows, an origin story for the villain of 101 Dalmatians – specifically the two Disney versions, the 1961 animated film and the 1996 live action film where the character was memorably (and brilliantly) portrayed by Glenn Close. This fits Cruella into three major-modern-movie trends, which are:
a. The Disney live-action remake, which regardless of faithfulness to the source material, almost always attempts to ‘correct’ some flaws of the original and smear on a corporate-approved sheen of surface-level wokeness on it. (3)
b. The long-gestated prequel, which takes an interesting character from a beloved classic and proceeds to explain in painful and uninspiring detail the reason behind every single catchphrase, throwaway line, or costume design. The ‘pinnacle’ of this genre is Solo: A Star Wars Story, a movie so misguided that it somehow thought the plotline ‘Lando imprisons his robot girlfriend’s consciousness in the Millennium Falcon’ was a good one.
c. The traditional-villain-as-antihero-origin-story, a relatively new development that appears to be gaining traction due to the successes of Venom and (sigh) Joker.
While none of these three contemporary sub-genres are inherently bad, their overall hit rate is pretty pathetic. I use the word ‘contemporary’ here very deliberately, because these sub-genres are inextricable from the tentpole franchise model that all major Hollywood studios have strapped themselves to, resulting in barely warmed-over pablum that seeks to disguise its lack of quality with a shot of concentrated nostalgia, or worse, a pretension to depth through ‘progressiveness’ or ‘edginess’ (hi again, Joker!) These movies are box-ticking exercises, the equivalent of an aging rock band with half its members dead sleepwalking their way through the hits on an umpteenth reunion tour. The first two, in particular, are creative dead-ends, beholden as they are to decades-old films that are treated like unassailable works of art by a rabid fanbase. At least the third sub-genre occasionally creates interesting ideas, though I have had issues with their execution. (4) And yet, with all that said, Cruella still manages to be good (for the most part) while having a foot in all three blighted sub-genres? How?
3. Simple. At its core, Cruella is a movie powered by a fascinating premise. This is both its saving grace and its greatest source of frustration. The central storyline – antiheroine takes 70s London fashion scene by storm and straddles the line between haute couture and vandalism – is enticing. The character arcs and dynamics – especially the love-hate-fear-respect relationship between Cruella and the Baronness – are rich and textured. There is just so much to love about this movie. Director Craig Gillespie’s continues on from where his previous film I, Tonya left off, delivering yet again another portrayal of a complicated antiheroine and another C+ Scorsese impression. (5) The Marty-isms are in full force, with whip-pans, rapid editing, and a pretty magnificent (if clearly CGI-sweetened) tracking shot cribbed from Goodfellas that busts through the skylight of a department store, past the fashionable sales floor and into the bowels of the basement where Estella starts her journey by scrubbing toilets. It’s fine technical work, but even better visual storytelling, laying out to the reader exactly where our protagonist starts and where she wants to be. Beyond that, everything in the second act interactions between Estella and the Baroness works like gangbusters, as the Devil Wears Prada-like (whose screenwriter receives a story credit for this one) verbal sniping escalates into an all out fashion war with a wonderful montage of Estella (now Cruella) upstaging the Baroness at every fashion event with more and more elaborate outfits.
4. And those outfits, my god, those outfits! If there is one single MVP of Cruella, it’s costume designer Jenny Beavan, whose work here is as brilliant as her masterclass in Mad Max: Fury Road. All the costumes here are superb, but the ones with the most buzz (and deservingly so) are the outfits which Estella wears when she makes her debut as Cruella. I’m no fashionista, but even my very untrained self was completely bowled over by the McQueen and Westwood inspired designs, including a garbage-bag dress complete with billowing train, a military/royal mashup (also with giant red ruffled train) and multiple safety-pin-and-leather punk inspired ensembles. These outfits are in contrast to the more classic (but no less fashionable) clothes worn by the Baroness, which span from chic Chanel and Dior style suits to more elaborate baroque garments in the party scenes. And, much like the aforementioned tracking shot, this is excellent visual storytelling as it makes clear the difference in styles and philosophies between the two leads. Overall, Cruella is a visual feast, as aside from the costume design, the overall production design is also quite a sight to behold, a melange of Dickensian, Swinging Sixties, and punk 70s Londons that, while slightly confused, is never less than interesting to look at.
5. The acting in general is also extremely strong. I have long maintained that Emma Stone is one of the last true ‘movie stars’, which is very different from being an ‘actor’. An actor can get into a skin of character and convey the depths of human emotion and all that meaningful bullshit, but a movie star – a movie star lights up the screen with a smile. A movie star is larger than life. And a movie star can drag any semicoherent nonsense into respectability through the power of sheer charisma. Think Bette Davis or Elizabeth Taylor or Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise or Will Smith. Emma Stone is a movie star, and as a bonus, an excellent actor as well. Cruella does not work remotely as well without Stone’s expressive face and immense likability, which does a lot to sell the title character as sympathetic. This is necessary because the film’s attempts to create sympathy for her are clunky at best, including a painfully dragged-out prologue intended to make us feel for the young Estella but just left me wondering when the actual movie was going to start. Even worse are the moments where Estella/Cruella monologues directly to camera about how she is feeling, which is the sort of shoddy writing Futurama‘s Robot Devil would not approve of. (6) Still, it speaks volumes about Stone’s ability and luminosity that she nearly, nearly sells the emotions of those scenes, but honestly, even the late Philip Seymour Hoffman would not be able to rescue them. As good or better than Stone is Emma Thompson’s Baroness, who basically plays ‘Miranda Priestly, but at 11’. It’s rare that scenery chewing is done through underplaying instead of overplaying, but Thompson’s pitch-perfect facial and vocal control results in a classic camp performance, with every eyebrow raise and crisply enunciated syllable calibrated to pinpoint precision. The other actors around the two Emmas all do serviceably, with special credit to Paul Walter Hauser’s impeccable comic timing and less-than-impeccable British accent.
6. But yet, with all these successful elements, a fair amount of Cruella still feels overstuffed and baggy, particularly in the moments where Brand Management takes centre stage. Kayvan Novak’s Roger is entirely superfluous to the plot, with every scene he’s in practically screaming ‘we’re only doing this because he’s in 101 Dalmatians‘. Similarly, the scene where Cruella finds her surname is so lame (and reminiscent of the equally terrible one in Solo) that I literally buried my face in my hands in the cinema. Other equally egregious moments include an extremely convoluted (and pointless) origin story of the two main dogs in 101 Dalmatians, and even how the name of Cruella’s mansion came to be. Was anyone really interested in that? Even the pedants who derp on about ‘well how did the villagers in Beauty and the Beast not know that their lord had disappeared for a decade’ or ‘hey why didn’t The Lion King explain why the hyenas are outcasts’ could not possibly be interested in this, right? And even if they were, why in Walt’s name is the most powerful media company in the world far more interested in fulfilling the desires of Youtube nitpickers rather than, I dunno, writing a coherent narrative? The problem of Brand Management also results in a fair amount of tonal inconsistency, as the movie constantly plays a game of chicken with its audience – veering into genuinely morally ambiguous territory before skidding away shamefaced, as though suddenly remembering the fact that it is a PG-13 Disney blockbuster. Ironically, this means the movie avoids grappling with the single thing Cruella de Vil is most known for, namely the whole puppy killing and skinning. Therein lies one of the biggest issues with this attempt to tie this movie with the pre-existing Brand – just how do you make a puppy killer sympathetic? After all, people tend to have really visceral reactions to watching dogs suffer onscreen. Disney’s answer to this question is the cinematic equivalent of a confused shrug, first feigning towards giving Cruella a boilerplate motivation for dog killing, before having characters question over and over again whether she is a dog murderer, and finally ending with Stone more-or-less telling the camera ‘oh c’mon I would never do that‘. But this begs the question – if your ‘complicated’ origin story for a renowned dog killer rejects the idea that she would, y’know, kill a dog, then why even bother? Considering the fact that the narrative literally pauses at several points just to underline its relationship to the source material, this huge gap is so dissonant that it casts a shadow over the entire movie.
7. But I know why they don’t deal with the puppy murder, and so do you. That’s not what the protagonist of a four-quadrant PG-13 family-friendly blockbuster does. Except … that is precisely what she does. In the exact same continuity Disney is so desperate to maintain. And this is symptomatic of Cruella‘s flaws. It is a corporate-approved version of ‘edginess’ that is so toothless it cannot even deal seriously with the most well-known trait of the character because that would be far too complicated (and interesting). It’s a bourgeois suburbanite wearing a safety-pin leather jacket at the superclub’s Punk Night, a faux-rebellious and ill-fitting costume that can be easily taken off. And this is what makes Cruella so frustrating, for under a talented storyteller (which Gillespie undoubtedly is) with no franchise constraints, this could have made a quite fantastic film – a fashion-inspired Rushmore that would not hesitate to be dark and dangerous and could live up to its titanic lead performances and magnificent production design. But instead, we get this confused muddle of a movie that repeats the worst impulses of contemporary Hollywood (7) and shackles its promising premise to the lumbering monstrosity that is the Brand. It is a movie caught between trying to tell a story and its franchise obligations, resulting in a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas, plot points, and messages. In attempting to create a movie that is theoretically for everyone, Cruella ends up as a movie for no one – a defanged feint at morally-grey antiheroism too dark for kids and too tame for everyone else. It’s good enough, but free from the iron grip of the Mouse? It could have been spectacular.
- Metaphors are hard.
- A portmanteau of nerd and nitpicking which I literally just came up with, please send future royalty cheques to my agent.
- For more on this, I cannot recommend strongly enough Lindsay Ellis’s analyses of the live-action Disney movies, particularly those on Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo. I will link the two videos at the end of the review.
- We will see how Rock ‘The John’ Dwayneson does with Black Adam.
- This is a compliment. As Scorsese impressions go, we have A-grade (Marty himself), B-grade (Boogie Nights), C-grade (American Hustle), D-grade (no, I’m not done ripping on Joker yet) and F-grade (every other sub-standard gangster movie).
- See https://youtu.be/sFBhR4QcBtE for some timeless writing advice.
- Including its soundtrack, which is Suicide Squad levels of egregious in how it spits out classic pop and rock songs that comment on the situation in the most obvious manner. Anybody want to take a guess which song is played at the end of this movie that aims to create SYMPATHY for a woman named DE VIL?