In recent years, Disney has mined its vast vaults of classic characters for cinematic reinventions of old favorites. Now when thinking of the potential villains that could be reshaped into antiheroes, the last name on that list would Cruella De Vil, who after all was rather open about her desire to murder 101 dalmatians. Well, Disney overlooked the objections of ASPCA and has moved forward with Cruella, the origin story of Cruella De Vil starring Emma Stone and directed by Craig Gillespie. Cruella is weird movie. I’m just not sure who the intended audience for this movie is, but I know that I’m not a part of it. As hard as Cruella tries to be something different, it can’t escape the fact that it’s a cookie-cutter corporate product. Finally, they’ve made a family movie for moms who shopped at Hot Topic in their teens.
The film is set in London during the ‘70s, and it opens with a look at the life of young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) with her two-tone hair as she and her mother (Emily Beecham) make their big move to the city. But a terrible accident occurs and Estella’s mother is killed, with the child blaming herself for her mother’s demise. The young girl makes her way to London where she teams up with a pair of orphaned thieves. Years later, Estella (Stone) alongside Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) are constantly pulling off well-planned heists to keep themselves afloat. But Estella is growing tired of her simple life of crime and has bigger aspirations in the world of fashion. She soon takes a job for London’s reigning queen of fashion The Baroness (Emma Thompson).
At first Estella is intoxicated by the world of haute couture, but the buzz fades as she’s subjected to the casual cruelty of the Baroness. Estella begins working to undermine her boss by appearing at her fashion galas as her newly created persona, Cruella. With a punk-infused aesthetic, Cruella takes over the fashion world with her flashy entrances that dominate the headlines and infuriate the Baroness. It soon becomes an all-out war for control of the fashion world, with painful family secrets hiding just beneath the hem.
While I never connected to the story or characters of Cruella, it should be stated that this film is often a marvel to look at. From top to bottom, Cruella features top notch work from costume and design departments. While there are some aspects to the film that are unconvincing, the fashionable elements of Cruella features the glitz and glamour of the fashion world, as well as its main character’s devious twist on the stale classics.
But the biggest problem with Cruella is it just doesn’t have a consistent flow, and that’s made all the worse by the film’s excessive length. It’s not hard to see why so many parts of Cruella feel disjointed when the film has five credited screenwriters, and director Craig Gillespie is much more focused on the film’s style than its substance. Sometimes Gillespie’s focus on style pays off in a truly gorgeous shot. Other times, Gillespie’s style becomes a hinderance, swirling around capturing tons of computer generated opulence that doesn’t add a thing to the story. And its genuinely astounding just how seriously Gillespie takes this material. The film just can’t balance its lighter moments with its more serious tone, and it leaves the viewer with a bit of tonal whiplash as the film vacillates between levity and tragedy.
As much as Cruella is a movie that filled with problems, there are no problems with the film’s impressive cast. Emma Stone goes all in as this iteration of Cruella, reveling in the character’s duality. As the nefarious Baroness, you know what you’re getting out of the two-time Academy Award winner Emma Thompson, who excels as the icy villain. As Cruella’s partners in crime, Joel Fry and especially Paul Walter Hauser steal every scene they’re in. For a family film that is rather serious and light on laughs, any scene where Paul Walter Hauser appears to coax a chuckle is a welcome sight.
As with a lot of these live action Disney re-imaginings, Cruella is real mixed bag. It’s a visually pleasant experience that just can’t connect on an emotional or intellectual level. At times Cruella can be a really weird movie – I didn’t expect to ever hear The Stooges’ “I Wanna be Your Dog” in a Disney movie, especially in a movie about a would-be dog killer – but it’s never brazen enough to fully commit to its crazier aspects. Cruella is glossy enough to catch your eye, but there’s nothing under that sheen that sticks with you.
An absolute marvel of costume and production design, director Craig Gillespie’s Cruella has plenty of lush visuals and a fantastic cast, but the film is undermined by an underwhelming story that’s taken very, very seriously.