Review: Disney Aims to Create a Following for Cruella; Barely Manages More than Great Costumes

On the surface, there's nothing terribly objectionable about the idea to make a film centered on the villain of Disney's classic animated feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Cruella De Vil is—despite her penchant for black, white and red—a colorful character who fueled the nightmares of little children beginning the moment that film was released in 1961 and, like so many over-the-top villainesses in Disney's filmography (the Evil Queen in Snow White, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Malificent in Sleeping Beauty), she makes for a great foil to her demure, well-meaning protagonists. As directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl; I, Tonya) and written by committee (screenplay by Tony McNamara and Dana Fox; story by Aline Brosch McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis), the realization of that abstract idea, Cruella, is something as exaggerated, vapid and over-dramatic as the character herself. Which isn't to say it's not gorgeous to look at and quite fun in moments, with two Emmas (Stone and Thompson) doing their damn best to make the whole thing feel much more important than it has any right to. Boasting a soundtrack that shoehorns in every major pop song of the '60s and '70s and a whopping 2-hour, 14-minute run time, Cruella is a whole lot of movie—maybe too much. Cruella Emma Stone as Cruella in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. Photo by Laurie Sparham. © 2021 Disney Enterprises Inc. As an origin story for the woman who would grow up to hate Dalmatian puppies, Gillespie and his stable of writers spend a significant portion of the film's healthy runtime on a prologue of sorts, the young Estella, as she's known then, getting into every sort of trouble possible at her posh British boarding school. Her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) is raising young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) on her own, teaching her not to indulge in cruelty and instead put that side of her away, hidden out of view. Catherine decides to move the two of them into London for a fresh start. This early sequence features, for those of you keeping track at home, the first of at least three major galas featured in Cruella, each of them the site of a pivotal plot point in young Estella's journey to the baddest version of herself, Cruella. This is just one of many examples of the laziness of this particular character vehicle that's trying to build a world and backstory where none has existed before; have I mentioned the exhausting soundtrack? We get it: it's set in the '70s. By the time Stone takes over as Estella, she's a spunky street rat living in an abandoned warehouse with two petty criminal best buds, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), who get by pickpocketing on London's big red double-decker buses or staging jewel heists in plain view of the sales clerks. But with dreams of working in fashion (Fashion!), Estella lands a job at Liberty of London, a posh department store where she tries to get the manager to listen to her ideas for the store display windows between bouts of scrubbing the bathroom floors. When the store's most respected and adored designer, The Baroness (Thompson), arrives unannounced and sees one of Estella's designs, she conscripts the promising young talent to come work in her atelier. And now, finally, we've arrived at the pivotal relationship in Cruella, between The Baroness, a woman who's used to always getting what she wants, and Estella, who's never truly been able to be herself and has had to fight for every opportunity she's ever enjoyed. Both Emmas are clearly having a ball in their respective roles; with the help of their bold hair and makeup and costumes to die for, they each essentially disappear into their characters—not an easy feat for two actors so well known to audiences. Thompson in particular plays the icy female CEO to the hilt, the likes of which we haven't seen on screen since Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (which, in what one imagines is no coincidence at all, was adapted for the screen by Brosch McKenna). But even this fun can't last forever, as the film drags on...and on...and on...seemingly starting a new plot line every half hour or so. There's an Ocean's 11-style break-in plotted at one point. There's a hijacked fashion show turned punk concert. There's even a painfully belabored backstory reveal about three-fourths of the way through that, truly, we could've covered in the first 20 minutes and called it a day. These many moving plot pieces are matched only by Gillespie's varied and often confused directing style, understandable only if one gives him the credit of needing to keep up with the many, many tones of the film. The moment he and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis opt for a hand-held camera during one of Cruella's more revealing moments, thinking themselves creative for imbuing the moment with that approach's organic wobbling and general off-kilterness might've elicited the biggest eyeroll yet from me. One cannot have made the glossy, overstuffed film preceding this supposedly deep moment and then expect such a choice to carry any weight whatsoever. Many such moments fall just as flat, with a script (again, see: written by committee) so flat and unimaginative that it's not entirely clear who the film is written for. Younger children will certainly be able to keep up with the cumbersome plot, seeing how so much of it is, well, said out loud. But this is the story of a bad guy (girl? woman?) who does bad things—there's murder and vandalism and general debauchery—enough to get the film a PG-13 rating, meaning the older kids (and their parents) who do sign up for this adventure will likely find the plot a pandering, overly simplified one. Likely the only aspect of Cruella that is worth watching through to the end for are the divine, artful costumes; Jenny Beavan, with some 70 costuming credits to her name, has styled the likes of everything from The Remains of the Day to The King's Speech to Mad Max: Fury Road, and here she is set free to be as vibrant and creative as possible. The sequence involving Cruella attempting to usurp The Baroness's firm grasp on London's fashion elite (yes, that's a sequence here, too) features some of the wildest, impressive movie costumes of recent memory—watch for the one that involves dumping out a garbage truck. Really. Like the rest of their slate this year, Disney is releasing Cruella both in theaters and as a premium streaming option on Disney+ (subscribers will have to pay a bit extra to see it now, before it is included as part of the subscription in a couple of months). As big screen options go right now, there are certainly less eye-popping selections than this flashy, grandiose affair; for its scale alone, seeing Cruella in the theater might be worth it. But as for a film ostensibly created to enmesh this iconic character in the Disney zeitgeist going forward, its narrative is far too convoluted and forgettable to establish the character or this franchise as anything more than a good try that, aside from its wardrobe, badly misses the mark. Cruella opens in theaters and begins streaming on Disney+ on Friday, May 28.

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Lisa Trifone