The De-Vil Is In The Details
Another day, another Disney remake comes tumbling out the House of Mouse. Since the surprise success of The Jungle Book back in 2016, these remakes have been a middling mix of indifferent surprises and cold, emotionless CGI cash-grabs. Cruella then is most certainly not cold and emotionless. It’s still not a great movie but it’s definitely watchable and better than the ghastly Lion King remake.
This time Disney turn their attention away from heroes to its illustrious villain roster, glossing over megalomaniacs like Jafar and focusing on dog-napping, narcissistic psychopath Cruella de Vil instead.
Excellent costume design, slick camera work and both Emma Stone and Emma Thompson firing on all cylinders do well to hide some of the narrative issues this movie suffers from. Cruella is undoubtedly a fun movie but it falls squarely in the guilty pleasure category; this has absolutely no right to be as enjoyable as it is. In essence, Cruella is Disney’s attempt at a Harley Quinn movie.
Instead of glitter guns and a weak supporting ensemble however, Cruella revels in the punk-era of the 70’s, combining some rock’n’roll with a Devil Wears Prada storyline. The result is something that’s played out with Cruella as the plucky underdog but constantly undermined by its own inevitable future – Cruella is a villain and she’s not exactly a great character to root for.
Despite some early narration claiming “I’m bad… and that’s good”, the movie tonally falls flat when it tries to paint Cruella as this misunderstood, tragic victim. It didn’t work in Maleficent too well and it certainly doesn’t work here. In fact, the writers feel torn between portraying Cruella as a misunderstood villain and an outright loose cannon.
Ironically, when the movie actually embraces some of Cruella’s nasty traits and lets her loose on the narrative, the movie is that much better and feels a lot more confident in its own ability. It’s just a pity that these moments feel few and far between.
What we get instead however, is an origin story of Cruella, following her roots from a baby up to teenage years. There’s not really a defining moment when she becomes Cruella, despite some glimmers here and there, instead flirting the line between villain and antihero.
The first 20 minutes or so hone in on Cruella’s upbringing, including her birth which sees her sport black and white hair from the off and an innate desire to cause trouble and rebel. It’s here we also learn Cruella’s real name is Estella.
After being kicked out of school and forced to witness a horrific family tragedy (at the hands of three Dalmatians no less) Estella is greeted by Horace and Jasper. Together, they form a thieving trio that steal money, jewelry, food and anything else they can get their hands on. However, Estella is unfulfilled.
You see, she has a dream of becoming a big star in the fashion industry. With a knack for style, she soon attracts the attention of cold-hearted, no-nonsense Baroness. The Baroness exhibits all the traits Cruella will later adopt in 101 Dalmatians, presenting a mean-spirited edge that eventually rubs off on Estella toward the very end of the film.
Most of the movie pits these two against each other as they go toe to toe in the fashion world, with Cruella taking all the limelight (and love from the public) while Estella works for the Baroness and quietly undermines her with a fake, bumbling, nervous persona.
This all culminates in a dramatic third act where secrets are revealed and Estella embraces the villain inside her. Or, well, a watered down, distorted version at least.
Those going into this expecting a more dark and disturbing descent like that seen in Joker will be disappointed. This is still a Disney film after all, and the movie takes some serious liberties with its ending – especially a post-credit scene that had this reviewer screwing his nose up and audibly saying “really?”
These incredulous moments extend to the screenplay too, with some eye-rolling segments dotted across the bloated run-time. The Hunger-Games-esque burning dress is one such example, while another sees Estella fight off six henchman in a room on her own with one hand. “I am woman, hear me roar” indeed; it’s a clumsily choreographed sequence and one of the big missteps in this picture (alongside some very patchy CGI late on)
However, Cruella undeniably zips along at a lively pace, with some solid jokes along the way to lighten the mood. Horace and Jasper are absolutely fabulous in this, adding a much-needed comedic edge, while both Emma Stone and Emma Thompson shine in every single scene. Thompson in particular is magnificent as The Baroness, exhibiting just the right balance of campy evilness with a ruthless, cold exterior.
Likewise, Stone adopts the plucky anti-hero archetype nicely, with a story that sees her grow from a grief-stricken victim to more of the villain we’ve come to know and hate. Despite the best intentions from the writers though, it’s hard to get fully invested in a character that goes on to become a dog-napping maniac.
And that is ultimately the biggest problem with this movie. This is an origin story for a woman who goes on to kidnap dogs and, fueled by blood-lusting rage, sets out to kill them to make a fur coat.
Cruella is seemingly self-aware of this too and sometimes tries so hard to paint this villain as anything but the evil woman she ends up becoming that it causes a detriment to the story, sagging out the run-time with unnecessary explanations and long-winded redemption arcs.
Cruella will undoubtedly be a sure-fire hit for Disney but just like a Dalmatian can’t change its spots, Cruella De Vil can’t change her destiny. And no amount of punk music and lavish costume design can change that this is, in essence, an unnecessary origin story about a dog-napping psychopath.
Cruella releases on Disney+ worldwide on Friday 28th May 2021!