Film Review – Cruella
What a strange decision it was to make an origin story about Cruella de Vil. Her first onscreen appearance was in Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), in which she (voiced by Betty Lou Gerson) was a chain smoking, diabolical villain who wanted to murder and skin dogs to make a coat. What made her so memorable was the fact that she was so bad – she was the incarnation of evil. To suddenly change things around and make her a heroine comes off as odd, to say the least. But I suppose if the “House of Mouse” can make a prequel about Maleficent (2014), then this is no different.
Cruella (2021) might have been better served it if wasn’t tied to an established character. If it had been about a new person, it wouldn’t have been forced to fit in constant callbacks and Easter Eggs to cater to fans. But alas, director Craig Gillespie (with screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara) is saddled with having to maintain a juggling act between creating a unique story while pointing it in a direction we are already familiar with. Even Cruella’s disdain for dalmatians feels shoehorned. There’s really no reason for them to even be present and yet here they are – not for storytelling reasons but for brand recognition.
Before she becomes the villain we know, she is Estella (Emma Stone). After a heartbreaking tragedy left her an orphan, Estella joins up with thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) to live on their own in the streets of London. But Estella longs for more. As a young adult she dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She gets a job at a department store where she is mistreated and ignored. After rearranging the store’s display window to her own liking, Estella gets hired on the spot by The Baroness (Emma Thompson), the top designer in the country. However, the teacher/student dynamic soon turns sour, resulting in a bitter rivalry that echoes All About Eve (1950).
The main attraction of Cruella is in the visual textures. The art direction (headed by Martin Foley) and set design (Alice Felton/Amanda Willgrave) give 1960s London a nostalgic, swinging vibrancy. But it’s the costume design from Jenny Beaven and Tom Davies that takes center stage. Everything from the fancy gowns, chic dresses, to Cruella’s punk rock outfits are all a sight to behold. The dresses worn by Thompson feel like they were constructed by an architect, with their sharp lines and odd angles. There are a number of creative choices that seem strange in real life but work onscreen, such as when Estella jumps out of a pile of trash only to reveal that it is part of her intricately designed attire.
In terms of performance, Stone and Thompson both dig into their roles with glee. For Emma Stone, she has to play two parts: the shy redhead Estella, and the black and white haired vamp that is Cruella. She balances both sides equally well, even though the journey that takes her from “Estella” to “Cruella” feels a bit abrupt and even kind of silly. The way she comes up with the last name “de Vil” is on the level of Solo (2018) in its cringe worthiness. Emma Thompson doesn’t nearly have the room to chew scenery the way Stone does, but she arguably gives the better performance as the cold-blooded fashionista. In a movie about a bad people, she is the baddest of all. The way The Baroness cuts into a person with just her words is a testament to Thompson’s delivery.
But for as good as the performances are and for how gorgeous the costuming is, there is something about Cruella that just doesn’t sit well. The fact that the narrative asks us to side with her regardless of the fact that she eventually turns out to be a monster felt strange. In Joker (2019), Joaquin Phoenix’s character also turned to the dark side, but not once did the movie seem to root for him to succeed. The same cannot be said here – we are clearly meant to sympathize with Estella’s story. The writing and direction want us to forgive the fact that she will one day try to kill dogs by explaining that she is a victim of childhood trauma. Does that seem right to you? Advertisements sell Cruella as some sort of fabulous anti-hero, but she doesn’t really do anything bad. She’s all glamour without the bite.
The narrative is constructed with fancy cinematic tricks that don’t add to the characters or themes with any significance. The 60’s setting allows the soundtrack to be stuffed with pop and rock songs we’ve heard a million times before – from The Doors to The Bee Gees. Nicolas Karakatsanis’ camera flies around with little restraint. In one sequence, the camera does an unbroken take hurtling through the entrance of Estella’s department store, through the hallways, down to the lower levels, all the way to find her scrubbing the floor of the employee bathroom. The unbroken shot takes way too long, and the effect feels like the production showing off rather than building on the story.
This is one of those times where I feel completely on the fence about a movie. On one hand, the character building, soundtrack, and camerawork feel heavy handed and empty. But on the other hand, the costume design and performances make up for a lot of the shortcomings. Cruella sits awkwardly in the middle, caught between two sides as different as the main character’s hair. As of this writing, the good stuff outweighs the bad. Ask me tomorrow, and I might say the opposite.