It’s not controversial to say Disney’s recent string of live-action reboots, despite routinely making enormous amounts of money, have been pretty weak. Even when there are talented creatives behind them applying a vision that shouldbe interesting, the final product usually feels weirdly diluted, a mildly entertaining two hours that you’ll struggle to remember after just a few days.
So went my experiences with Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo, and I skipped Aladdin and The Lion King when they got similarly uninspiring press, but I returned last night with some hope for Cruella – an origin story for the 101 Dalmatians villainess from the director behind I, Tonya was a pitch I could see the potential in. The stars aligned to make this my first trip back to a movie theater since March 6, 2020 (Pixar’s Onward), and while my feelings on it tilt positive, that I’m writing about this film with anything less than rapture says quite a lot.
As a girl, Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) was talented, rebellious, and prone to wickedness, a trait that her kind mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) discouraged with the nickname “Cruella.” Now a young woman (Emma Stone) in ‘70s London, she rounds out a trio of petty thieves with friends Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry), using her sense for fashion to craft disguises while dreaming of a real career in design. She finally gets her opportunity by working under the esteemed but ruthless Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who preaches the necessity of a “killer instinct,” and Estella learns to fuel her creativity by leaning into her darker impulses. Her Cruella-persona soon rocks the fashion world, but when she learns something about her past that leaves her craving vengeance, she realizes “Estella” is really the performance.
Rather than a string of safe-but-boring choices, Craig Gillespie’s Cruella is a mixed bag of creative decisions that are either exciting or grating, but which ultimately cancel each other out. There is still that sense of flattening common to these reboots, as if Disney execs sanded down any hard edges before they even had a chance to form, but the vision behind this film resists this better than most. The guiding concept is clearly “black and white,” which is an interesting approach to this material that, ironically, sometimes works (the visuals, the upstart-vs-establishment conflict, the newspaper motif) and sometimes doesn’t (the attempted Estella/Cruella duality, the tonal shifts). The storytelling is just as often funny and engaging as it is infuriatingly lazy, and the characters are either cartoonishly fun (Hauser and Thompson especially) or totally bland. I left the cinema not so much shrugging as throwing my hands up in frustration.
For me, though, the fatal flaw holding this movie a half-star back from approval is the approach to Cruella de Vil herself. The benefit of having a villain hell-bent on making a coat out of puppies is that she can be deliciously, maniacally, unabashedly evil without actually being too much for a children’s story. Humanizing Cruella for the sake of an origin story, even as an antihero, robs her of her power. This is why it seems like Emma Thompson’s Baroness out-Cruellas Emma Stone in her own movie – I generally like Stone’s performances, but she was fighting a losing battle from the moment she was asked to play the character as internally conflicted. Her interpretation could benefit from a revisit in any future adaptation of 101 Dalmatians, but even if they do let her go full-Cruella, I worry that the antihero bell could be hard to un-ring.