If the thought of yet another toothless cartoon villain backstory doesn’t scare you, then nothing else will.
I’ve been roasting the notion of this movie since the moment I saw that first trailer. A “we live in a society” reboot for a puppy-skinner, Cruella, the prequel to 101 Dalmatians starring Emma Stone as the titular Madame DeVil, is one of those movies that sounds parodic in mere description: this is the sort of thing I would have come up with while drunk to take the piss out of Todd Philips and his Joker movie, you know?
But no: here we are. Oscar-winner Emma Stone dons the two-tone hair and fruity accent of the iconic cartoon style icon Cruella DeVil, as Disney scrape around at the bottom of their barrel to find something that might be worth churning over a few more times before things are done and dusted.
Alright, let’s cut to the case: Cruella is just a really fucking bad movie. The setting feels both too specific to allow for a real cartoonish madness and too vague to influence the film in any useful way; Cruella bounces around in fashion and music and other cultural signifiers without really seeming to understand much of what they mean beyond the most painfully literal (see also: the closing song being Sympathy for the Devil). Emma Stone is doing her best here, and her best is far from nothing, but there’s still just this gruelling discomfort in knowing that we’re storming towards Martyrs-ing a bunch of tiny Dalmatian puppies. Every scene feels stilted, even the camply cartoonish moments of Cruella’s emeerging villainy undercut by the fact that we still have to want to sit through two and a bit hours of her as our heroine. If the film had truly committed one way or another to making her either a sympathetic character or a true out-and-out cigarette-sucking bad guy (oh, and she can’t even smoke in this film, because it’s Disney and this is still For Kids), at least it could have flourished in that choice – as it is, we just get her henchmen commenting on how she’s not being as nice as she used to be before she throws on another black-and-white couture piece and cries on a motorcycle while thinking about her dead mother. Who was killed by Dalmatians, of course. Somehow, not the most egregiously irritating part of this movie.
Of course, one of the major problems with this villain origin story is that its villain is far better than the one we’re meant to be invested in. Emma Thompson as the Baroness is by far and away the best part about this movie – it’s just a classic Devil-Wears-Prada moment for the iconic actress, but God, does she bring some fucking fun to it. Without having to worry about redeeming herself or setting herself up for a later movie, she’s just this sneering, preening, wildly entertaining monster draped in the most outrageously gorgeous outfits, every line delivered with a supercilious sneer and delicious sense of fun. This is meant to be Cruella’s film, but since this movie can never quite seem to get a handle on who she is, Emma Thompson steps up to consume the villainy the way I really want from a film like this. Of course, her villainy is born from her choice not to be a mother, because maternity still equals morality in Disney movies, but at least she gets to hurl people off cliffs, you know?
If there’s one thing that Cruella gets totally right, apart from Emma Thompson, it’s the stunning fashion and costume design for almost all of the characters; the movie is almost worth watching for the divinely handsome clothes alone . And yet, even there, another missed opportunity – I think one of the things that drives me most crazy about it is how obviously and easily the movie could have made use of some cool motifs and themes of its setting to better tell their story. The majority of the film is set in 1970s London in the fashion industry, as Cruella works her way up under an uptight fashion maven (Emma Thompson), and director Craig Gillespie comes so close on several occasions to using that grounding for something useful. I would have loved to see them incorporating some real contemporary punk aesthetic and fashion into Cruella as she develops as a character; it acknowledges the punk movement with a few American-ized riffs on certain music choices (Iggy Pop, Blondie), but a deeper embracing of some of the grit and gall at that time (which could have so easily been reflected in the emerging fashion of Cruella and her fashionable anarchy over the course of the movie) would have at least given it a little more weight. Cruella is meant to be rebelling against the system that ostracized her. Oh, if only there was a contemporary movement in that exact place at the exact time the film was set that might reflect that? It’s right there, and yet, the film spends two hours dancing around it.
But, of course, to invite it in would require a Disney film to engage in counterculture in a meaningful way, and Big Mouse isn’t about to let that happen. Because it would look fucking ridiculous for a movie like this to claim anything other than its place as part of the absolute mainstream moneymaking corporation that bore it. Maybe that’s my biggest problem with Cruella, actually; it just feels so staid and so plain and so…toothless, despite claiming to tell the story of one of the company’s most iconic and unapologetic villainesses. The film can just about acknowledge the existence of punk and counterculture, but it doesn’t dare go any further into it than that, because doing so would be to undermine the very studio from whenst it came. There’s no anarchy here, there’s no daring, and even the half-hearted references to anything close to that are carefully-packaged so as not to upset the Disney brand. Cruella tries to be something sly, edgy, and fresh, but I just can’t take that seriously coming from a studio like Disney.
It’s polished, it’s well-acted, it’s occasionally even entertaining, but more than anything, Cruella is, fundamentally, a story that purports to flip on its head the way we understand Cruella DeVil, aims to play something new. But it’s stuck in the same old sanitized and measured beats that really don’t give it the energy that it needs to succeed.
By Lou MacGregor
(header image via Roger Ebert)