Cruella and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Now I’m sure that 101 Dalmatians is a classic and that Cruella is a great villain in it, but the fact is that it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I just don’t have any attachment or fondness for it. What I DO have attachment and fondness for however is Maleficent which was a brilliant deconstruction of the fairy tale mythos and made an otherwise one note villain into a complex character with depth and pathos. It’s clear that this is the template that Disney is using for this reimagining of Cruella De Vil with a sprinkling of Joker throw in for good measure, and frankly that’s what got me interested in this movie more than whatever connection it has to the Disney classic. Does it manage to be another outside the box interpretation of the Disney formula, or are they scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to find anything else that people want to see again? Let’s find out!!
There once was a girl named Estella Miller who had really awesome black and white hair and she knew that one day she would become a world famous fashion designer! That or a professional MMA fighter because every day in school she was getting in fights with the boys and telling teachers off for being fools which eventually forced her beleaguered mother (Emily Beecham) to take her out of the countryside and to the town of London where she may find her place. Along the way however, her mother makes a stop at an old friend’s house, and… well this IS a Disney movie, so it’s not long before things spiral out of control there and Estella is left an orphan through rather ludicrous means. Without anywhere else to go, she heads to London and meets up with two street punks who take her in and as they survive the means streets of London by pick-pocketing for their bread; and this is BEFORE Thatcher’s Britain! As is wont to happen, Estelle does grow up into a bright young woman (Emma Stone) who gets a job working for the biggest fashion designer in the city simply known as The Baroness (Emma Thompson) and for reasons that I shan’t spoil here, Estelle gets VERY cross with The Baroness and decides to assume an alter ego as the Fashionista Cruella who will take London by storm at the expense of her current employer! With the help of her two ruffian friends Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), will she become the fashion icon that she always dreamed of with getting back at The Baroness as a fun bonus? Is this Estelle just lashing out at the unfairness of the world around her, or perhaps is Estelle the mask that Cruella has been forced to wear this whole time? Perhaps there’s a little Cruella in all of us; just yearning to tell the collective bosses of the world where to shove it!
I like this movie so much that I’m frustrated that I didn’t like it even more which is probably a quote they won’t be putting on the poster any time soon but I assure you is still rather high praise for the movie! There are some brilliant ideas and some genuine dark humor throughout that makes it feel like it could very well escape the shadow of the film it’s connected to… but it just couldn’t help itself from pulling back at certain points and constantly reminding us that this is based on another movie that you can watch on Disney Plus. It’s a shame because the stylish cinematography, the solid acting, and especially the rather dark places they take this movie do allow it to stand on its own and certainly put it head and shoulders above most other Disney remakes. Heck, it’s certainly better than The Joker which is the other film it’s taking inspiration from and perhaps something that REALLY went all out could have run into the problems that that film suffered from, but there’s no denying that the DISNEY CORPORATION looms large over this reinterpretation of the character and that the film’s greatness only exacerbates its predictable flaws.
Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to compare this to the Disney remakes since it’s not ACTUALLY remaking a previous movie, but it’s still pretty jarring just how different this feels from anything else the company has put out in recent years. I think more than anything else, it’s not coming into this with an agenda or feeling that it needs to FIX anything about the source material. Frankly it’s kind of going in the opposite direction by embracing the idea of turning a one note dog murder into scene stealing personality with depth and layers. They do pull back on actually having her KILL dogs which is DEFINITELY the right choice here, but the dogs don’t go completely unscathed as the Dalmatians in this and the movie are nasty little jerks who straight up commit MURDER in this movie! It’s honestly a pretty ingenious bit of lampshade hanging for the ridiculous the idea of a Cruella movie is in the first place, and things only get better from there! The war between Cruella and The Baroness is definitely where the movie has the most fun. It’s creative, it’s psychological, and it presents Cruella as someone who’s obnoxious and self-absorbed while also trail blazing and inspirational; albeit to the extent the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the world will allow with one its branded characters. It’s all over the place with heist scenes, clever manipulations, and even a rock concert that only add to the anarchic edge this movie is trying to go for, and I found to it be very entertaining. Things go a BIT off the rails towards the end with a third act revelation that is completely out of left field, but it’s not ENTIRELY unmotivated and serves something of a thematic purpose for the movie. Similar to how the film is hanging a lampshade on the original film, the twist and the subsequent conclusion to the movie feels like a warped fairy tale, like something you’d see out of Fables (albeit cleaned up for a mainstream appeal), so even when it’s bouncing all over the place and not all clicking together, it still manages to stay INTERESTING which is almost unique in the Disney remakes which mostly go for Pablum and will give you a little bit of revisionism if you’re lucky. Aside from that, we’ve got some solid performances from most of the leads. I’d say that Hauser is a bit out of place here, especially with his TERRIBLY English accent, but he manages to be more fun than distracting; especially whenever he’s paired up with Fry. Emma Stone is definitely playing up her EVILNESS whenever she’s in Cruella mode which I’m sure some may find a bit grating but I thought it fit well with her character that until now has had to assume roles and fulfill certain expectations just to survive, so it makes sense that her new self is such a BIG personality. What helps ground Stone’s performance is Emma Thompson who exudes such an overwhelming presence wherever she goes that it allows moments for Cruella to be subdued and not completely on all the time. It’s nothing groundbreaking to be sure, but it’s interesting to see how these characters bounce off of each other and the give and take involved with making each performance work.
Now the elephant in the room (or the terrified puppy in this case) is whether a character like Cruella De Vil who’s entire purpose was to skin little doggies to make a fur coat is someone who can rightfully carry a movie as a protagonist; though not in the way that characters like Alex DeLarge or Hannibal Lecter can. As much as this movie DOES feel like a departure from the Disney mold, there’s no way they would make a movie that so explicitly follows a monstrous character such as these so they do ultimately make Cruella a sympathetic figure rather than indulge in her badness all the way through. For me though, I ultimately liked her character in this movie as I’ve always had an affinity for the “self-made” villain archetype; someone whose whole deal is that they are SO talented and SO great at what they do that they bend the universe to their will out of sheer spite. Characters like Doctor Sivana from Shazam (played by Mark Strong who is in this as well!) who was told they weren’t worthy to be the hero so instead proved everyone wrong by becoming a more powerful villain. This of course is often a self-justifying lie that these characters tell themselves as it’s unlikely they could have succeeded to the extent that they do without a decent amount of privilege (despite Sivana’s sad family life, he IS still the son of a rich man who had decades of resources to throw at his obsession) and to this movie’s credit I think the third act twist kind of makes a point about this; at least in a loose sense if you look really hard. I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but essentially the big reveal has her question the justifications she has told herself about who she is; not so much in a LITERAL sense as the reveal doesn’t go back in time and change everything she’s gone through up to that point, but for a minute there it does feel like her story has changed and it kind of takes the air out of the anarchic RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE antics that she was up to. Perhaps I’m reading a bit too much into it, but this idea of her losing control of her own story is what kept the third act ridiculousness from spinning too far out of control and is what makes this feel like a much more nuanced character than someone who will one day wants to kill a whole lot of puppies.
Where the movie stumbles are ultimately the aforementioned compromises as it should have kept a bit more of its anarchic edge and used the callbacks not to “enrich the backstory” but to poke fun at the whole idea of this. It’s a film that is constantly at war with itself as it seems to include the 101 Dalmatians stuff on pure sufferance and can only go so far in disregarding the status quo. This is deflating and a little bit bizarre considering how far they let Maleficent go off script with its ending and I was hoping throughout that we’d end on a similarly different note here, but instead it feels like we’re setting up for 101 Dalmatians with about as much subtly as the end of Red Dragon where it literally ends five minutes before Clarice walks through the door. It just doesn’t make sense to me that they worked so hard to re-contextualize the character and give her a story of her own to then try and squeeze her back into the box that the original film had for her. Disney is going to Disney I suppose, and considering how many concessions the filmmakers DID manage to get through in making this movie I suppose a little unearned sequel bait is a decent enough compromise.
If the movie did more to separate itself from the source material and didn’t insist on so many callback, this could have been a new classic for Disney right up there with Maleficent. Instead, it’s still a mostly good and entertaining movie that’s worth checking out and gets a solid recommendation from me, but the compromises are glaring and underscore the overtly calculated nature that Disney makes these live action reboots; prioritizing nostalgia and brand potential over genuinely interesting ideas. No major studio is free from these kinds of calculations but Disney is arguably the most overt about it which is a shame considering how many resources they have to make the kind of movies that Cruella should have been, but a world with this compromised Cruella is still better than one without it.