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‘Cruella’ Review: Disney attempts to give a dastardly villain her due

Emma Stone slips into Cruella de Vil's high heels in this origin story that is narratively puffed up but occasionally energetic.
Credit: Disney

If Disney is truly invested in finding more creative routes through the intellectual property-mining efforts it’s been so frustratingly obsessed with over the last decade or so, the detours could be much less memorably scenic than “Cruella.” I envy the person who would read that sentence and not consider it a loaded statement, if such a person exists.

Because it’s nearly impossible not to compare the Disney Live Actionaissance’s latest offering to what’s come before – and because most of what’s come before, like those emotionally sterile “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” remakes, tend to be ubiquitous in their money-grabbing motivations – it’d be a disservice to pretend this review wouldn’t be riddled with enough asterisks to form a constellation in the shape of Cinderella’s castle. We may as well get the big one out in the open early:

“Cruella” is among the more unique of Disney’s live-action reboots and revisitations*.

*Largely by default, given how it tells the closest thing to a new story with a fresher tone than its predecessors even attempt to conjure up.

As envisioned by “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie, this cheeky reimagining and expansion of an iconic Disney villain – and, crucially, a villain who’s inarguably the most memorable character of her franchise – doesn’t aspire to the wonder that other recent Disney remakes have reached for and largely failed to achieve, but something (relatively) more acerbic and wicked.

Whether it succeeds in those aims depends on whether you’re fulfilled or exhausted by the whirlwind storytelling energy Gillespie imbues his story with, electrifying some intriguingly imagined elements as much as it distracts from the insubstantiality of the plot surrounding them. But for the first time in at least a few of these capitalistic excursions, it finally seems as though there are actual personalities filling this movie’s iteration of a moody, 1970s-set London, instead of bland green-screened environments where the populace looks as though it’s being held hostage.

That’s largely thanks to the two Emmas – Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, that is – who bring wildly absorbing verve and brash appeal as a pair of feuding dames out-dameing each other for the title of biggest rep in the West End’s fashion scene. If only “Cruella” were as simple as that premise promises from end to end; alas, there’s an abundance of padding in this 130-plus-minute-movie, which veers rather frustratingly between origin story and heist movie and tale of trauma, with a sprinkling of self-defeating self-seriousness thrown in for good measure.

I couldn’t confidently tell you about why Stone’s young Cruella (or Estella, as we come to learn she was named upon birth) becomes obsessed with upstaging her boss, Thompson’s regal, deliciously maniacal Baroness (practically the prototype Cruella De Vil in all but name). I can’t honestly say the movie makes any kind of good on the endless stream of references to promise-breakers and troublemakers from a thematic standpoint. And I certainly can’t refrain from reporting it’s laughable how the film’s screenwriters (Dana Fox and Tony McNamara) insist, perhaps at the behest of Disney suits, on what are ultimately tepid and terse connections to what is now, I suppose, a 101 Dalmatiansverse. It is either ironic or perfectly in line with the company’s creative motivations in the current century that what invites the most scrutiny about “Cruella” is also why it’ll likely become one of the more successful blockbusters of the last 15 months.

And yet, even though it doesn’t admit it, “Cruella” seems to understand it’s best when the awkwardly concocted story is merely a vehicle for its style, a stage for Stone, Thompson and a reliable stable of character actors to indulge in some zesty zaniness through the rivalry that dominates the movie’s middle act. When it’s in that particular mode, “Cruella” is one of those movies that sincerely believes sheer busyness is a barometer for quality, and, well, there are one or two moments that might make you believe it when it isn’t making blatant overuse of it licensed-song arsenal (truly, that arsenal is far deeper than anything in the story).

Stone – whose talent for only needing a few moments to make an impression fits well with her director’s sensibilities – laps up every opportunity to blend menacing and maniacal, cementing one of her most purely entertaining performances. Yestercentury London’s tangible cobblestone streets are enticingly moody when the rushed editing allows us more than a few seconds to soak in its atmosphere, and the craft put into the movie’s costumes, hair and makeup is one of the more visible examples of artistry to come of Disney’s recent live-action enterprises. Those scenes might very well widen the eyes of those who use the Best Costuming categories at the Oscars as a bathroom break (and if there was any justice at all, “Cruella” would contend at 2022’s awards).

The movie reaches its propulsive zenith in a lively, over-much-too-soon sequence in which Estella, closer now to permanently stitching herself into the skin of her alter ego, upstages the Baroness with a literal concert ambush of smoke and sparks. It’s “Cruella” gleefully literalizing its pop-punk coating, but also briefly tapping into a self-awareness that these movies generally seem to think they’re too good for.

Credit: Disney

Moments like these sprinkled throughout Gillespie’s film – another example manifests in the endearing antics of Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, here playing Cruella’s sidekicks while becoming deeper characters themselves – feel like clear-cut evidence of the audience member being encouraged to meet the modern Hollywood machine halfway. With a six-figure budget, multiple Oscar-winning performers and a prime start-of-summer release slot, “Cruella” surely represents the most resources ever allocated to a Battle-of-the-Brilliantly-Costumed-Broads story, right? Do we commend that such a project exists, or lament that it can only happen on the shoulders of corporate-driven nostalgia? To what extent do we evaluate “Cruella” on its own merits, and does such flexibility even exist?

The questions are complicated by the fact the movie insists on being connected to its source material as much as it’s putting itself at a little more than shouting (er, barking) distance from it. It takes all of 10 minutes for dalmatians to pop up (and chase a young Estella, for a change) but the movie is kidding itself if it expects us to leverage the history of a menacing diva known for killing puppies against her evolution as someone we’re meant to root on in the third act as the movie begins to overthink things, twisting its protagonist’s poisonous ambition into an awkward personal pursuit of reclamation. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any audience would find the character truly antagonistic at all were “Cruella” actually a standalone, original piece of work, one in which its protagonist was surnamed Vil Laness, the dalmatians switched to rottweilers.

But, again, this is only a flaw in and of itself when the screenplay makes strenuous gestures towards underscoring what we already know Cruella will become. At one point she philosophizes about how “people do need a villain to believe in,” a shoddy thesis to “Cruella” as wannabe character study. But it’s even more resoundingly a signal of this movie’s capitulation to compromise, of never being all that much interested in really locating what separates cruelty from Cruella-ty.

"Cruella" is rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements. It's available in theaters Friday, as well as on Disney+ Premiere Access. 

Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser

Directed by Craig Gillespie

2021