I’m not really sure what I was expecting when I sat down in a movie theater for the first time in 14 months. But over the course of 134 minutes, I became reacquainted with what people love best about theaters: the giant screen, the overwhelming auditory experience, the community viewing (albeit socially distanced and masked). And, for better or worse, Disney’s newest live-action offering, the Craig Gillespie-directed Cruella makes the most of that experience.
Cruella is brash and audacious—much like its title character—even when it can’t keep up with its own ambitions. It’s also far more sinister than it initially seems; that’s saying a lot about a film whose protagonist is best known for trying to kill puppies to make a coat. In this reimagining, the iconic villain is better known as Estella; we learn that “Cruella” was a childhood nickname referring to her wild, impulsive nature—one she comes to fully embrace.
The film tracks Estella (Emma Stone) through her childhood and the tragic scenario that lands her alone in London, befriending a pair of fellow grifter children and pulling small jobs. That is, until the aspiring fashion designer Estella lands an opportunity to work for the premier fashion queen Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). From there, things quickly ramp up and ultimately spiral out of control.
Few films have any reason to surpass two hours, and this film is no exception. Clocking in at 134 minutes, Cruella is far too long, forcing an unwieldy jumbled plot to sustain the runtime. And it’s too bad, because there’s a lot to like in the film. There’s an infectious energy that courses through it, maintained by its stellar soundtrack of ‘60s and ‘70s hits, ranging from The Doors and The Rolling Stones to Nancy Sinatra and Nina Simone. It also features sublime original music, including a rousing score from Nicholas Britell and a moody original song from Florence + The Machine.
Cruella is a visually-striking film; Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography creates an exciting punk ’70s London playground. But the real stars are its spectacular wardrobe by Jenny Beavan and dazzling hair and makeup from Nadia Stacey. There’s an endless supply of stunning costumes, and I never grew tired of the lavishly over-the-top looks upstaging one another from scene to scene. While the costumes are, obviously, pivotal to the fashion-heavy plot, the hair and makeup play a crucial role in distinguishing Estella from Cruella, whose look is as iconic as the character itself. (If Cruella doesn’t nab Oscar nominations for its costumes and hair and makeup, it’ll be shocking.)
Stone plays Cruella (and her British accent) with an exciting glint in her eye that’s a joy to watch. Her Cruella is distinct without being wholly estranged from the iconic villain. In one scene in particular you can see a delightful homage to her 1961 animated counterpart.
In addition to retooling Cruella, the film also reworks Jasper and Horace into more than her hapless cronies and yes-men. Rather, it refashions them into Estella’s found family in London. Joel Fry and, especially, the comic relief Paul Walter Hauser are delightful; their chemistry with Stone reinforces one of the stronger story elements. As expected from a group of thieves—aided by a pair of pups, including the scene-stealing one-eyed Wink—the film is chock full of heists, both small-scale and large, and it’s better for it. (John McCrea’s fashion-forward accomplice Artie is also a very fun addition to the crew.) Mark Strong, forever the dutiful bodyguard with secrets, plays his part well. Still, I’d prefer more from him than spending 90 percent of a film looking stern, only to reveal hidden depths during the final 10 percent.
Thompson is delightfully viscous, clearly relishing in the opportunity to break bad with impeccable style. The Baroness presents as incredibly poised but with a darkness underneath. However, the Baroness is a fun, but ultimately under-baked character, and there’s really nothing Thompson can do to save her. Ultimately, she feels better suited to wreak some havoc on Days of our Lives than go toe to toe with a Disney character.
Kirby Howell-Baptiste is wasted in the film as Anita, Estella’s childhood friend and a journalist covering fashion for a tabloid. Anita largely remains on the fringes of the plot; she spends more time observing the action, and scribbling in her notebook than taking significant part. (Kayvan Novak as Roger, the Baroness’ clumsy lawyer in this depiction, has even less to do.)
The film often feels like a complete reimagining of the title character, embracing her inner baddie without wholly giving into her worst impulses. That said, eventual teases of Anita and Roger’s future puppy-related meet-cute gave me pause. It feels odd having spent two hours watching the ambitious Estella complete her transformation into Cruella, to imagine her downfall. I can only hope this version of Cruella de Vil continues down the path of faux fur and thus avoids her previously-depicted fate.
Naturally, everything about the film beckons The Devil Wears Prada comparisons. For me, it’s best summed up as The Devil Wears Prada meets Ocean’s Eleven, before wildly detouring into ABC series Revenge. The film starts out strong, but tries to do too much and can’t rein it in. That also goes for a plot twist that’s less of a shock and more of a classic soap opera move.
Ultimately, Cruella, featuring a script from Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, tries to do too much. (Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis have a story-by credit.) The film tries to tackle an increasingly dense plot—while sprinkling in a few twists—and it becomes convoluted and jumbled. It feels like the story is trying to compete with its visual and audible elements instead of working alongside it. I wonder if, with a more stripped down plot, devoid of unnecessary elements, it would have worked better.
(Technically a spoiler but an important inclusion: As, traditionally, Cruella DeVil is pro-animal slaughter, I do want to take the time to confirm that there is zero animal death in this movie. We can all breathe a sigh of relief together.)