Given what a dopey, uninspired, and tedious mess Disney’s new Cruella movie is, it’s startling to find out how much serious talent was involved in its making.
The film is directed by Craig Gillespie, who made the terrific 2017 satire I, Tonya about the infamous knee-capping of ice skater Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Like with I, Tonya, Cruella kicks off with a bitter, ironic voice-over offering a few minutes of false hope that Gillespie’s managed to pull it off, but unfortunately, any resemblance to that superior film ends there.
One of Cruella’s many credited writers is Tony McNamara, who’s earned the status of dark-historical-comedy auteur after giving us two brilliant works, the film The Favorite (2018) and the television series The Great (2020). And Aline Brosh McKenna, here with an original-story-by credit on Cruella, wrote the generally amusing comedy The Devil Wears Prada (2006).
It seems there were just too many other cooks in this kitchen, usually the case when the various ingredients never cohere into anything like a tasty dish. All the flavors stand out as distracting references to other films. Emma Stone, as Cruella, brings some of the same ruthless, social-climbing ambition of her Abigail character from The Favorite as she tries to conquer the fashion world. The character of “the Baroness” played with acid wit by Emma Thompson, is clearly a variation on icy fashionista Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada, now queening it in 1970s London. Richard Jewell’s Paul Walter Hauser, the extraordinarily gifted character actor playing Cruella’s henchman Horace, is just doing a Cockney variation on his hapless would-be mastermind role from I, Tonya. And so on.
But the main problem is the way the source material — Disney’s 1961 animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians, based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith — is mangled for the worst possible reason: making Cruella de Vil, perhaps the greatest villain in any classic Disney film, a sympathetic protagonist. Disney villains almost always provide a welcome relief from the typical sanctimony found in the Mouse House’s animated classics. And they’re usually the best characters too. Villains like the Evil Queen in Snow White and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty were drawn with loving enthusiasm and inventive detail by Disney animators, who dreaded being assigned the Prince Charming characters because they were idealized to the point of complete generic dullness.
If you re-watch the old One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which holds up wonderfully at a racing pace of seventy-nine minutes, you’ll appreciate how great a character Cruelle de Vil really is. Still scary long after you’ve left childhood behind, she’s a skeletal, rapacious nightmare representing the worst of upper-class viciousness and greed. The more formidable aspects of legendary actor Tallulah Bankhead were caricatured, including her carelessly slung-on mink coat, extravagant stabbing gestures with cigarette always in hand, heavily ironic use of the endearment “Dahling,” and wild laugh. Cruella cites the laugh, using a film clip of Bankhead cackling in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, but it’s a pointless reference, since the Cruella of the film has none of Bankhead’s qualities.
The implied critique, in the animated film, of Cruella’s wealthy entitlement and mad consumer obsession is also missing in Cruella. In One Hundred and One Dalmatians, it takes her readily from nasty cracks about the relative poverty of her supposed friends — the nice young couple Roger and Anita — to the abduction of their Dalmatian puppies, and all the Dalmatian puppies she can find, so she can have yet another fur coat, a spotted one this time. However, Cruella makes the title character poor, a street thief striving to make it in the cutthroat world of fashion. She has no qualms about becoming a wealthy Baroness-like diva once she’s destroyed the empire of the actual evil Baroness.
In keeping with recent practice of basing films on bogus victim backstories for great villain characters — see Maleficent as Exhibit A — Cruella starts off as the sympathetic child-victim “Estella,” a nice though spiky individualistic girl born with the famous half-black, half-white hair, who tends to get into trouble with rule-bound authority figures. But if Estella/Cruella is good, someone else must be at least a little bit bad, and this falls to Emma Thompson’s Baroness character and her three Dalmatians, vicious attack dogs who apparently kill Estella’s mother early in the film.
But don’t imagine that such a harrowing development sends young Estella/Cruella on a quest to have those three pure-bred killer dogs skinned and made into a spotted fur coat. Oh heavens no. That would be cruel!
Instead, young Estella is forced into the streets where she meets pickpockets Horace and Jasper (Joel Fry), and joins their thieving band. In the animated film, Horace and Jasper are Cruella de Vil’s callous, dimwitted henchmen who serve as comic relief for the way they try hard to do her evil bidding but always bungle it. In Cruella, they’re her nice and even intelligent pals.
As Estella is replaced by alter ego Cruella, she emerges as a mere prankster, rising in the fashion world to rival the Baroness by disrupting her various events with slightly — very slightly — punkish displays. The film is supposedly set in the 1970s punk scene in London, but you’d never know it if you didn’t read the film summary.
Cruella’s designs gesture vaguely toward looks of several different decades, as much 1990s Alexander McQueen as 1970s Vivienne Westwood, but the only really daring one is a strangely magnificent “trash” gown made of an artful hodgepodge of discarded materials. Cruella makes an entrance at a Baroness fashion show riding on the back of a garbage truck, and then escapes the same way, unleashing the dress’s forty-foot train spilling out behind her. It’s sufficiently cool that costume designer Jenny Beavan may win another Oscar (to match the ones she got for A Room with a View and Mad Max: Fury Road) based on that gown alone.
But you have to ask yourself: is it worth the extra $29.99 Disney charges, on top of the Disney Plus subscription rate, just to see the trash gown? Or to watch the two Emmas — Stone and Thompson — struggle to bring wit and feeling to a basically rotten script?
Of course, you could always go to the theater, where the film premiered simultaneously. But in spite of some ridiculously high praise from a number of critics, it seems a lot of people are staying home and weighing their options when it comes to seeing this hundred-million-dollar extravaganza, which is reportedly doing just “so-so” business.
But that’s okay — there are plenty more great Disney villains they can water down and make all cuddly, now that Intellectual Property (“IP”) rules in Hollywood and everything that gets made has to be based on something that already got made. The Evil Queen in Snow White can get her own prequel about how she was picked on as a girl and led astray by her only friend, that brownnosing Magic Mirror. And Monstro the Whale in Pinnocchio can be reformed in a sequel in which he befriends Cleo the Goldfish — flushed down the toilet by Pinnocchio, who turns out to be a brat when he’s a real boy — and they’ll go on delightful undersea adventures together.
So many wholesome live-action Disney films to look forward to! And the IP marches on!