Cruella

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you seen Disney’s 1961 animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians lately? It is perhaps the least pretentious tale the Disney factory has ever concocted: evil woman hires criminals to steal puppies so she can make a fur coat. It also has one of the greatest Disney villains ever. Voiced by radio star Betty Lou Gerson, her raspy voice addressed everyone as “dahling” like theater legend Talulah Bankhead. The character preened about the room ensconced in a huge fur that hides her skeletal frame while chain-smoking from a cigarette holder. She was a sight to behold. Like actress Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the villain didn’t have a lot of screen time. Yet when she appeared, her charisma was such a force of nature it loomed over everything else. You remember her to be a bigger presence than she actually was.

Cruella is another live-action Disney concoction that investigates the origins of this character in the form of a prequel. Reinvent the story from the villain’s perspective. This was similarly accomplished (from a profitability angle anyway) with Maleficent. However, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo have all recently mined the live action remake idea. I admit it is with much cynicism when I say the raison dêtre for all of these interpretations is business first. The art (hopefully) will follow. I still contend their 2015 masterful achievement Cinderella is the gold standard. Cruella is nowhere near that level, but it’s too beautiful to be a train wreck.

Some people are evil because they are born that way. In the cartoon, the character was driven by selfish greed — a refreshingly simple idea that needed no explanation. Nevertheless, the screenwriters here do not share that point of view. They seek to expand on why Cruella de Vil is the way she is. The protagonist is conflicted by two sides of a dual personality. Her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) notices this in her daughter. There’s nice girl Estella but that only gets her so far. Hence why she creates the Cruella persona. She’s not really bad. It’s all an act. Cruella doesn’t smoke. Nor does she want to skin puppies. She doesn’t even wear furs. Sheesh! How did this nice girl become the Cruella de Vil we know?

This origin tale is hampered by unnecessary plot threads in a convoluted 134-minute backstory. The pile of unresolved details is a snooze fest. I’d excise the first 30 minutes at least. A better more efficient movie would have begun when Estella is employed by the Baroness. Estella first arrives in London as an orphaned child of the late 60s. It’s at this time that Cruella meets two delinquents who will become her cohorts. Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry will play Horace and Jasper respectively as adults. Cruella cobbles her childhood from the iconography of Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie. Sadly Cruella doesn’t come close to the beloved musicals inspired by those works.

Cruella isn’t a musical, although it does feature a lot of music. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, I, Tonya) appropriates 33 songs (yes 33 I looked it up) mostly from the 60s and 70s that emphasize the image on the screen. From Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” to Blondie’s “One Way or Another” or “She’s a Rainbow” by The Rolling Stones – the song selections are overused needle drops you’ve heard a million times before. The musical cues are so on the nose they are more likely to inspire eye-rolls than admiration.

Cruella is another case of “too many cooks.” The saga has five credited writers: Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) from a story by Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis, and most tellingly — Aline Brosh McKenna who wrote The Devil Wears Prada. At its core, Cruella reveals itself to be just a remix of that classic. A bad screenplay is a mortal sin in the world of filmmaking. Despite this most major transgression, I did not hate this.

The film delivers in several key areas that kept me enrapt. As a showcase for an opulent parade of gorgeous fashions it flourishes. Occasionally costume design can elevate an entire production. Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mirror Mirror) could do this. So can Jenny Beavan (A Room with a View, Mad Max: Fury Road). The costumes are the movie. She’s been nominated 10 times (2 Oscar wins) and her work here deserves an eleventh. At the Baroness’ Black and White Ball, Cruella arrives covered in a white cape that goes up in flames to reveal a vintage red dress. Cruella manages to steal from…er uh excuse me…pay homage to pop-culture history and the career of Vivienne Westwood. It presents the hero as an aspiring fashion designer with a punk style that usurps her boss.

Cruella is a mixed bag. The performances are satisfying even when the writing is not. Emma Stone’s manic energy is captivating. Her boss is Baroness von Hellman. Emma Thompson is doing a riff on Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Thompson is exquisite. She looks and acts the part. The Baroness affects a dismissive attitude. However, her appetite for delivering disparaging remarks isn’t as beautifully realized. She tries. Oh, how she tries! Unfortunately, her words aren’t as clever. It is her physical embodiment of the role where the comedy succeeds. The Baroness’ lack of concern when she pops a champagne cork into a poor waiter’s eye gets the biggest laugh. Furthermore, it never fails visually. Come and gorge on the opulence. Hey, if you can’t feel good, at least look good.

06-01-21

7 Responses to “Cruella”

  1. I agree, see this for the costumes and the sassy banter, but yes, much too long. I would also say I put “Beauty and the Beast”, up there with being a great live action remake. 3 ⭐️

    Like

  2. AvidMovieFan Says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this movie!! I might even see it again it made me feel so good! Emma Thompson Rules!!

    Like

  3. Rachel's Reviews Says:

    We are pretty close on this. I gave it a mild recommendation but thought it had many of the problems you mentioned

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was prepared to love this The idea of dueling Emmas piqued my interest. ❤️

      Like

      • Rachel's Reviews Says:

        And that is the best part of the movie. I was skeptical because the whole concept is bizarre but I guess it’s best thought of as Cruella fan fiction rather than a true prequel

        Liked by 1 person

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