Cruella: A Fun Time Derailed by Narrative Loop-Closing
The problem with Cruella is, of course, that there’s no real creative justification for its existence. The result of the endless Disney churn in which the company mines its own history or that of its acquisitions for any scrap of intellectual property that could be rebooted or repackaged, Cruella almost seems like the byproduct of a studio drunk on its own power, daring itself to humanize one of the least forgivable villains in its back catalog — lest you forgot, Cruella De Vil’s whole thing is kidnapping puppies and skinning them in order to make fur coats. But what’s most surprising about the whole endeavor is that it kind of works.
Emma Stone stars as Estella (the “Cruella” moniker is explained in Solo-esque fashion), a street urchin and thief who dreams of taking the fashion world by storm. When finally given the chance, she crosses paths with Baroness von Hellman — a delightful Emma Thompson — and, through a variety of convoluted and coincidental developments, finds herself hurtling towards a showdown both personal and professional. The latter is by far the film’s greatest strength: the middle stretches play like a sanded down version of The Devil Wears Prada, with engaging chemistry between Stone and Thompson. Both Emmas can ham it up at a moment’s notice, and are at their best here when asked to go big and play for laughs. The same goes for when Stone joins in on the escapades of thieves Horace and Jasper — the interplay between her and Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser often has a real energy to it that serves the film better than the more manufactured electricity that becomes more and more prominent as the hours pass.
Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Cruella suffers most from what feels like obvious studio mandates. What first might seem like self-aware winks to the source material (the reason posited in the early going for why Cruella might grow to hate Dalmatians is wonderfully ludicrous) eventually become grating attempts to neatly connect these events to One Hundred and One Dalmatians. As these easter eggs start coming faster and furiouser and the persistent needle drops become even more gratuitous (ostensibly the great Nicholas Britell scored the film, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you how much original music I was aware of), Cruella becomes a bit of a drag and you start to really feel the length. Though director Craig Gillespie’s visual stylings and kinetic sensibilities are well suited to the subject, I ultimately had a similar reaction to Cruella as I did to his previous effort I, Tonya: a charismatic lead performance that impressively humanizes a villain, an engaging supporting cast, and a lot of cinematic energy that ultimately left me feeling a little exhausted by the end.
But that’s mostly a trivial complaint for a mostly enjoyable diversion — I’ll take Gillespie’s brand of popcorn entertainment over a lot of the paint-by-numbers fare we get these days (his Fright Night remake seems woefully slept on). The real issue lies with the notion that all these recycled properties somehow need to perfectly line up with whatever has come before: I sincerely doubt Disney can show me the person out there who’s going to be upset that a 2021 summer blockbuster (which, based on the rumored budget, Cruella is definitely meant to be) doesn’t perfectly square narratively with a 1961 animated feature, which itself was adapted and subsequently rebooted. I’m not here to say that studios should bring the IP churn to a stop, much as I might like to — I know that’s a losing effort for the moment, and you have to make the best of what’s on offer. But what I would like to see from these is some real creative freedom: serve me all the Disney villain prequels you want, but let them stand on their own. Cruella almost threads the needle — next time maybe it could finish the whole dress.