Should Cruella de Vil (Emma Stone) come off as misguided, awkward or really unscrupulous? A new movie tries to suggest a complicated mix of all three and most of the time it feels confused. Disney hide caption
Chalk it up to our eternal fascination with human evil or a movie industry lacking original ideas, but it seems like almost every classic villain these days is guaranteed their own full-length backstory. The result was a mixed bag, but not uninteresting, and they have allowed some good actors to exaggerate entertainingly: Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for his mental breakdown as the joker, and Vicious, a clever rewording of Sleeping Beauty, remains one of the few films that Angelina Jolie’s otherworldly screen presence has effectively used.
The latest example of this trend is Cruella, and it’s a mixed bag, but not uninteresting. Like Maleficent, it’s a Disney live-action film inspired by a previous Disney animated classic – in this case, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Set in London in the 1970s, it is meant to show us the teenage origins of Cruella de Vil, this fascist fashion fanatic who kidnapped a litter of Dalmatian puppies and tried to transform them into a spotted fur coat.
The thing is, dog killers aren’t the most personable protagonists, and this movie definitely wants us to empathize.
The thing is, dog killers aren’t the most personable protagonists, and this movie definitely wants us to empathize. As a result, this Cruella doesn’t seem bad enough to commit a puppy murder at the end of the movie. She is portrayed as a rebel – impatient, repeatedly misunderstood and unwilling to abide by the rules of a world that she throws aside at every turn.
Cruella is already a mischief when we meet her as a young girl named Estella. Her loving mother tries to get her out on the streets, but after a series of tragic events, Estella is orphaned and has to start her own business on the streets of London. A few years later, Estella, now played by Emma Stone, is an experienced handler who commits robberies with her pals Horace and Jasper. (They are played by Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry.)
Estella has an exceptional eye for fashion; She sews amazing disguises for herself and her criminal partners, with a little inspiration from Artie, a vintage shopkeeper played by John McCrea. It doesn’t take long for Estella to tackle her job as a designer for the Baroness, an imperious queen of couture who runs the most exclusive fashion label in London.
As the baroness the great Emma Thompson gives a performance of devilish wit – she’s half angry stepmother, half Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. In Estella, the Baroness produces an insane competition series that soon unleashes her pent-up alter ego Cruella as a kind of glam-punk performance artist of the fashion world.
Cruella is determined to stage her nemesis while maintaining her secret identity as Estella. She begins to smash the baroness’s galas and parties in attention-grabbing clothes – the work of brilliant costume designer Jenny Beavan, in her biggest shop window since then Mad Max: Anger Street.
The Emma vs Emma matchup is just as compelling on screen as it is on paper. However, their rivalry also points to a conceptual weakness of the film and possibly to the ongoing trend of reformulating villains as sympathetic antiheroes. Thompson’s Baroness is monstrous in a way that puts this Cruella to shame. In a film that is supposed to be about the rise of a big villain, the baroness turns out to be the real big villain.
Still, Stone gives it all in a tricky role with the echoes of the lowly young woman turned into a ruthless schemer in which she played The favourite. Here she is frankly more interesting than Estella, who is skillfully biding her time and planning her next move, than she is as Cruella, who is often staged by her own wardrobe. Should Cruella fare as misguided, awkward, or really unscrupulous? The script tries to suggest a complicated mix of all three and mostly feels confused.
Cruella was conspicuously directed by Craig Gillespie, who had previously made the dark comic Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya. His filmmaking in Cruella is all on the surface, but that surface is undeniably entertaining. The soaring, roaring camerawork sometimes seems to be channeling the Goodfellas era Martin Scorseseand the rebellion-themed soundtrack is packed with hits from the ’60s and’ 70s from The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Clash, Blondie and more. Cruella is way too long and undisciplined at two hours and 14 minutes, but at the best of times it gushes with rude punk energy. It’s not a bad movie, even if its protagonist is nowhere near bad enough.