Film Review: Cruella
Director: Craig Gillespie
Marc Platt Productions and Gunn Films
In Theaters and Streaming on Disney+ 05.28
The original 101 Dalmatians was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater, and it still brings back great memories. But strangely, as a child, I just kind of went with the premise that the villains were out to kill and skin puppies, but I have a much harder time with it now. When I heard about Cruella, a cinematic origin story for Cruella de Vil, a villain who is so outrageously nasty that she seems like something out of a Q’Anon theory, it has been a huge question mark to me. Now that I’ve seen the film, it’s more like a question mark followed by three exclamation points and an emoji with googly eyes.
Cruella is set in 1970s London amid the punk rock revolution, and follows a young grifter named Estella (Academy Award winner Emma Stone, La La Land), a clever and creative girl determined to make a name for herself with her designs. She befriends a pair of young thieves who appreciate her appetite for mischief, and together they are able to build a life for themselves as grifters on the London streets. One day, Estella’s flair for fashion catches the eye of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson, Howard’s End), a fashion legend who is the toast of the London elite. But their relationship sets in motion a series of events and revelations that will cause Estella to embrace her wicked side and become the raucous, fashionable and revenge-bent Cruella.
If there’s one point that can’t be stressed enough, it’s that Disney label or no, Cruella is not a family film, and while you’d think a PG-13 rating might be enough to make that clear, it’s just not. No, it’s not filled with curse words, but I would take kids to any MCU movie before taking them to Cruella, both because those are less traumatizing and because most kids will be entertained by one of those. The obvious comparison here is Joker, and Cruella reaches a point where it is so unsettlingly dark that it almost plays like a Saturday Night Live parody of that film, except for the fact that it’s not funny. It’s also important to note that, like Joker—or to use a Disney comparison, Maleficent—you cannot reasonably view this as a prequel, regardless of how it’s being sold. This has to be looked at as a completely alternate telling in order to appreciate it all.
Director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, I, Tonya) has executed the film with plenty of panache, and the production design by Fiona Crombie (The King) is striking and sumptuous, but I kept asking myself “Am I having fun?” and the answer was always no. The screenplay, by Dana Fox (Couples Retreat) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite), with the screen story credited to three other writers, is all over the place, and it constantly had me asking: Who is this movie aiming for? It’s absolutely not without its ambitious elements, and I admire the attempt at a feminist statement on how toxic society has a long, sad history of pitting women against each other in a “kill or be killed” mentality when it comes to careers and ambition in general.
But it takes the idea way too literally, and takes itself almost as deadly and pretentiously serious as Joker did while trying to balance wacky elements such as baby Estella being born with the hairdo that makes her look like the black-and-white cookie from Seinfeld in a sequence that evokes the birth of the Penguin in Batman Returns. Cruella can’t ever seem to decide whether it’s trying to mimic Roal Dahl, Guy Ritchie or Paul Schraeder, and that doesn’t make for a good mix. It also clocks in at a grueling 134 minutes, which doesn’t help matters.
The good news is that Stone is terrific in the lead, physically becoming the character right down to her movements, which are especially pronounced when she is driving. Joel Fry (In The Earth) and Paul Walter Howser (Richard Jewell, I, Tonya) are marvelous as Jasper and Horace, respectively. While I’m a longtime Emma Thompson fan, her performance didn’t do anything for me; she’s just Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada without any nuance. Mark Strong is memorable as John, the personal valet to the Baroness, but his importance is tied to the worst plot thread of the film and possibly of the entire year.
The biggest selling point of Cruella is a killer soundtrack that includes The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Clash and Nancy Sinatra, to name just a few. But even that gets to be a bit much. It’s almost impossible to use “One Way or Another” by Blondie in a film that doesn’t feel a bit too on the nose, and when “Smile,” which the current generation knows only as the song in the trailer for Joker, started playing, I literally almost got up and walked out, thinking “how many times do I have to hate this movie?”
I can’t completely write off Cruella because it does have some interesting qualities, and it’s sure to have a fanbase among people who like wearing black, Halloween and shopping at Hot Topic, but I can think of little that appeals to me less than turning Joker into a genre. I’m already bracing myself for Gargamel, wherein we learn that he was bullied by The Blue Man Group as a child. Cruella just doesn’t work despite its best efforts. It’s a total bust as a family film, and those who pay $30 for it on Disney+ thinking, “Well, the kids will watch it at least 18 times” are going to be pretty unhappy. –Patrick Gibbs