‘Cruella’: A film to behold rather than enjoy

“Cruella” – Cruella de Vil is one of Disney’s most feared villains, right up there with Maleficent, Ursula, and Scar.  The Hunter in “Bambi” (1942) won’t win any Man of the Year awards, especially from this critic.  “Bambi” was my first movie experience in 1975, and I remember crying my eyes out when the title character’s mom died.  I haven’t watched that film since, so yea, Disney antagonists sometimes leave a mark.  In that case, a permanent one. 

Of course, Cruella originates from “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961). She sets her sights on the animal kingdom too, as she wishes to make a fur coat out of Dalmatian skins.  Nice.  That’s a demented endeavor on par with dumping toxic waste in the Colorado River or suggesting to watch the Adam Sandler (so-called) comedy “Jack and Jill” (2011) for date night.  Glenn Close also starred as the infamous anti-PETA baddie in the 1996 live-action remake and 2000 sequel.  Twenty-one years later, we have a Cruella origin story, whether the world needed one or not. 

Disney tapped director Craig Gillespie to tap into this ominous character, and he helmed the fabulous “I, Tonya” (2017), so he knows a thing or two about disreputable female leads.  For Cruella, physically, she sports naturally bloodshot eyes, a unique salt and pepper hairstyle, an angular face that could cause paper cuts, and according to Google, she stands – in the cartoon world – somewhere between 5’ 7” and 5’ 9”.   To an 8-year-old kid in a theatre, Ms. de Vil stands about 6’ 8” and a straight-up 7-foot with heels. 

Paul Walter Hauser, Emma Stone, and Joel Fry, as Horace, Estella, and Jasper

She’s an intimidating soul, but does she have one?  “Cruella” tries to answer that question, and Emma Stone plays the lead as the early 20-something, and Tipper Seifert-Cleveland is a 12-year-old Cruella for a hot minute, or rather an unhealthy 15. Actually, Emma and Tipper are Estella, but Cruella is their alter-ego when they feel an “I am woman, hear me roar” moment coming on.

The picture doesn’t run for a moment but for a lengthy, winding 124 minutes.  The narrative’s twists and turns are compelling, but who knows how long young kids can hang.  Then again, “Cruella” is rated PG-13.

Anyway, the first hour pits pre-teen and adult Estella as a big-time victim(s), a human being slighted, bullied, overlooked, disrespected, and something far more brutal.  The latter is a plot point that Disney loves because it’s a featured tragedy that they’ve paraded around for 80 years, but hey, why mess with a “winning” formula.

The screenplay effectively plays on our sympathies, but thankfully, Estella (or Stella) finds some reprieve from her pain in the form of new bosom buddies, Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry).  They are two lifelines when no one else accepts her.  However, the moral dilemma is that this dubious duo begs, borrows, and steals to make a living but scratch out the first two interests.  Horace and Jasper are grifters all the way and always looking for an angle.  Our featured personality soon shares their slanted perspective, as theft – in countless forms – is their business, and business is booming!

Filmed in London, Gillespie captures the pomp and circumstance of The Swinging City.  Since the movie is set in 1964 and then 1974, he and his team offer almost two dozen music snippets from the period.  Generally speaking, there’s a distinct joy in listening to fond tracks that match the on-screen events, and The Zombies’ “Time of the Season”, The Doors’ “Five to One”, and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” help fit that toe-tapping, head-bobbing bill.  After a short while, however, this precise novelty wears off, because instantly recognizable songs constantly pop over the speakers throughout the movie, and the 20-second clips feel like gimmicks rather than organic harmonies. 

Ohio Players’ “Fire”, Deep Purple’s “Hush”, ELO’s “Livin’ Thing”, Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy”, and the platinum record list goes on and on.  Since the film cost about 200 million, perhaps 10 million quid went into music rights.  How much does Blondie’s “One Way or Another” cost?

The soundtrack feels overplayed, but Gillespie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis offer glorious visual captures of the fashion world and the land of galas and cotillions.  Stella eventually lands a designer gig with The Baroness (Emma Thompson), and the film delivers dizzying, gorgeous set pieces, and every color in Crayola’s The Ultimate Crayon Bucket models themselves on the latest perfectly cut and draped fabric imaginable. 

The on-screen textile cornucopia will bring tears to Tim Gunn’s eyes and massive appreciation from style pros and novices alike.

Emma Thompson as The Baroness

So, with high-profile music, Martin Foley’s sweeping art direction, Jenny Beavan’s glorious costume designs, a fabulous locale, and Disney’s towering support, one would surmise that “Cruella” would be a blast.  Sure, the movie captures plenty of eye and ear candy – and Cruella’s chalky-white plastered cheeks and two-tone hairdo is a look that simultaneously draws awe and nightmares, but the story is a bleak and dreary tale, and purposely so.

Hauser and Fry – who would hopefully provide some comic relief – aren’t given many chances, if any, to bump some funny bones, and the former was a hilarious scream as Shawn Eckhardt in Gillespie’s “I, Tonya”.  Just check out Hauser’s Eckhardt mock interview or any of his moments in that film.  This triad even has two dogs for good measure, but other than a Chihuahua named Wink sporting an eye patch and playing a rodent for an important grift, their natural cute and mischievous gifts are lost or forgotten.     

Here’s what’s not lost.  “Cruella” is a dark tale of revenge, and murder looms over the entire movie.  Cruella is an anti-hero because her foe (who will not be named in this review) is much worse than her, at least at this point.  The narrative is not exactly a party, but the chess match against her adversary delivers some surprises…during Estella’s schizophrenic journey.  Horace and Jasper refer to their friend as two entirely different people without a second thought, and she appears to snap into a psychotic break to begin the second half of the picture 

Hey, Venom (Thomas Hardy) is a demented, schizophrenic, outer-space, murderous anti-hero, but “Venom” (2018) is a noticeably more festive time at the movies.  If only Cruella jumped into a lobster tank and bit the head off some live seafood.  Let’s save that for the next prequel.  

Emma Stone as Cruella

“Cruella” is a movie to behold rather than enjoy, and if your 8-year-old does watch it, brush up your knowledge on mental illness and mommy issues when your child inevitably comes to you with questions.  On the positive side, you can reminisce about the visual magic of movies and brag about your The Clash and The J. Geils Band record collections too.     

⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits: Walt Disney Studios

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2 Thoughts to “‘Cruella’: A film to behold rather than enjoy”

  1. OMG I just watched the trailer for Cruella on Disney+! It looks so good! I don’t think they could have chosen anyone better than Emma Stone for that role. I remember watching 101 Dalmatians as a kid. That was a great movie. 2021 movies are looking pretty good!

    1. Emma is really solid here, and I think the movie does look great. Totally agree. I wasn’t super-crazy about it, but I do recommend it. How did it go?

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