Directed by Craig Gillepsie
Written by Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis
Cruella wants to be three things all at once. The first is a sort of campy send-up, or homage, or vaguely-understood pastiche of glam and punk as fashion movements in London during the early to mid-1970s, organized around the concept of a caper movie with a scrappy, mean-spirited, and frightfully cool-looking anti-heroine to root for, opposed by a more traditionally-elegant, still cool-looking, and upper-class (indeed, literally aristocratic) villainess for us to despise. The second thing it wants to be is an emotionally moving heroine's journey on the subject of vengeance that tracks, with a level of fidelity that may astound you, Luke Skywalker's, all while confirming the family she discovered in the gutter, because found families are also very in these days, and, better yet, easy to write. The third thing it wants to be is a late-capitalistic IP vehicle doing mindshare maintenance for 101 Dalmatians and, more importantly, merchandise with a black-and-white color scheme that they can slap a Disney copyright on. Meanwhile, it never wants to be a prequel that explains the origins of famed furrier Cruella De Vil, you can forget that right away, but the movie is never so able to strip you of the slightest charitable feelings toward it than when it realizes halfway through its own closing credits that it needs to pretend it's made some minimum effort in that direction. It's contemptuous in a way that's been getting depressingly common in big studio fare lately.
This forms a little conceptual triangle and, as geometry suggests, there is no ordinary line that can connect every point on a triangle, and despite director Craig Gillespie's laborious exploration of conventional three-dimensional space with a camera that bears a certain manic, unblinking indifference to anything it actually finds, and several long trips through the fourth dimension by way of pop music montage, he does not find a line in non-Euclidean space to connect these things either. If it had only tried to be one side of the triangle, maybe it could have been two of these things simultaneously. But let's get real, it was probably never going to be the third and manage to be either of the others, and the only benefit to being a Disney brand exercise is that it afforded Gillespie a song budget dwarfing the whole budgets of most movies made twenty years ago, and then he makes no song choices that are interesting or meaningful. It has a character who almost certainly listens to David Bowie and probably has heard of Jobriath, but the movie doesn't and hasn't, respectively. And Jobriath's glam/chamber music deal in "Imaman" would be, like, perfect, except I guess for the whole female fury empowerment thing it has going on with its fashion designer anti-heroine, which is a whole fifth thing I guess the movie wants to be, though it's about the actual craft of fashion so minimally that I'm not sure I ever saw its designer actually sew a stitch or create anything, just sketch. Anyway, the songs Gillespie got Disney to pay many millions of dollars for barely feel more personal than a Top 40 oldies station, and "barely" only because they are genuinely old songs, or covers of genuinely old songs. There's a "These Boots" in there, for sure, and I could have titled the review "Sympathy for the De Vil," but then I would've had to kill myself.
Besides, it's that third thing that's the sticking point. I try not to blame giant media enterprises for being giant media enterprises, and to just maintain a sense of proportion generally as regards their actual comparative level of evil. But boy does Cruella ever feel like what people mean when they use content as a swear. I know this film got a theatrical release but only the participation of movie stars assures me this must be true. It's not that I think it ruins anything. I don't even like 101 Dalmatians very much, and don't care if it did get ruined (I mean, the decades-later DTV sequel and the Glenn Close live-action comedies presumably did that already, if such a thing mattered, right?), and if it weren't for the excellent, cod-urbane romantic-comedic first ten minutes of it, and the interesting use of xerographed animation throughout, I believe I would dislike it thoroughly. (I can't even quite find it in myself to actually care that Cruella's period piece setting is, like, so close, but not quite right, off by about twelve to fourteen years. This I find merely weird and annoying.) No, here's the thing: this movie ruins itself just by existing in the form it does, and maybe that's worse, because there's something in its very long and long-feeling 134 minutes that—very theoretically, of course—could have made for an enjoyable time, if only it were named something besides Cruella.
Well, things do not get off to a promising start and there's no real reason to think Not Cruella would be all that much better, just less prone to idiotic continuity-servicing that took five-plus-fifty writers to come up with, probably the laziest of which is the fact that while our heroine begins as naught but Estella Miller (Billie Gadsdon and Tipper Seifert-Cleveland as young'uns, Emma Stone once she's growed up), her future identity is confirmed by her mother's (Emily Beecham's) description of her meaner, more rambunctious side as "Cruella." That's exceedingly bad, but still not half as bad as the explanation for "De Vil," though any explanation for that would, by necessity, be the worst, even if it didn't also involve Cruella 1)hotwiring a car to steal it and 2)immediately saying she does not know how to drive the car she knew how to steal. Five credited writers.
So we meet young Estella, as Cruella devotes itself to fully twenty mother fucking minutes of opening montage—I am not exaggerating, and this is a principal if not the only way that the film feels like a 134 minute trailer for itself (I did not count the number of needle drops in this opening montage but I'd hazard "around five")—and we learn much about Estella's circumstances as she is raised by her single mother, whom Estella loses early on, when her mother confronts her employer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson), the reigning queen of fashion in Great Britain in 196X. This was a bad move, for the Baroness's killer dalmatians push Estella's mom off the edge of a cliff after giving chase to the little girl. The last bit is why Estella comes to believe it was her fault, justifying the extreme self-loathing and grief we're told she feels, though it's filmed so as not to be any surprise to us.
Alone in the world, she links up with fellow urchins Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and, alongside her friends, grows to young adulthood (Stone, 32, does okay with this, Fry, 37, and Hauser, 34, rather less so). They've used this span to become very good and very low-rent grifters and thieves, and also in the meantime Estella has succumbed to social pressure and begun to dye her striking skunk-like black-and-white hair. But Jasper, who has always had Estella's happiness foremost in his mind, uses those skills to get her an actual job at an upscale department store. It is at this point (which, again, comes after twenty minutes of montage and—how did I forget—constant and exceptionally-needless voiceover narration from Stone) that the movie almost finally starts. Oh, Estella also met Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) at school, because this is still technically a 101 Dalmatians prequel. Anita will at least service the plot later as a reporter and ally in the press, though Roger only gets into the mix as (throws dart) the Baroness's attorney. Sure, fine.
Can we begin now? Maybe! Estella's job sucks, and the movie briefly flirts with being laugh-out-loud funny thanks to her boss (Jamie Demetriou), whose irritated and aghast line reads at this prole with delusions of grandeur and literal garbage on her face are easily the film's finest work despite being come and gone in less than five minutes. Estella, anyway, impresses the Baroness with a bold window display she made in defiance of her station, losing her shit job and getting a slightly less shit job as one of the Baroness's junior designers. After a spell, however, she realizes it was the Baroness who killed her mom, whereupon the movie can, at last, be said to truly begin. Now comes that mysterious new force named "Cruella," using her real hair as a Linda Danvers-esque disguise, and resplendent in the best glam and punk-lite designs that Estella can come up with (one of which, the most conceptually audacious and genuinely good, is almost explicitly Zoolander's Derelicte). Cruella's on a crusade to harass, assault, and humiliate the Baroness, while Estella makes a bid from outside and in to topple the old lady and become the new ruler of London fashion.
In this middle, Cruella manages some modest successes, in that it develops a plot of modest interest, and also gives Stone a chance to do the whole camp Batman villain thing I expect she believed she'd signed up for. Almost inevitably, the best thing Cruella has going for it is its pair of Emmas, and mostly when they're together (or plotting against one another separately, which is practically as good), though truthfully Thompson is at least good all throughout, almost certainly because in this movie about bad women fighting she's allowed to be wholly mean, evil, and fun, and Stone is weighed down with mommy issues and identity issues and being the oblivious end of a weird, somewhat pathetic quasi-crush relationship with Jasper that doesn't exactly feel like any of the known flavors of that (it's not fan-service, it's presumably not setting up a romance in a sequel, and it's not even close to poignant) and so, I think, exists instead to be a plot device. Stone is also weighed down with approximately eight or nine different (and all the same) scenes where she addresses her mother's ghost at a fountain, one of which is any good, and mostly because by this point she's gone half-crazy and is a hot mess in Cruella make-up. Even Fry and Hauser, whose utility mostly amounts to "not-actually-humorous comic relief henchmen," are weighed down, in their case by eight or nine different-but-the-same scenes where they bitch about how bossy Estella's getting, which never goes anywhere. Along for the ride are some dogs, dalmatians and otherwise, mostly CGI, sometimes not very good CGI, I presume because the original was also about dogs. (I at least half-wonder if the dalmatians' role in Estella's mother's death and Cruella's kidnapping of them later was a first draft idea that stuck around without remaining useful, while in some potential version of the film Cruella actually did murder those dogs out of vengeance and wear them as a coat, and I would be sorely tempted to give that version of the film a pass. Sure, that would render her very dark, but... yeah.)
But I want to make it very clear that Cruella is a massively ponderous and pathologically inefficient film that ought to be around 90 minutes, particularly considering what a waste the first 20 are, and then there's a last act that's paint-by-numbers bullshit and fairly stupid on top. (Really, Estella's already won in that trailer moment where everyone's shown up to the Baroness's ball dressed as her. That's the climax, everything else is just wrapping up the pointless twist introduced four scenes earlier. I hate to say Mark Strong adds nothing to a movie, but here we are.) What that 134 minute runtime is presumably for, though, it doesn't even do that well: Jenny Beavan's gotten justified praise for her costumes, especially some abrasive if somewhat corny things for Stone to wear (and this is, before it sounds like I'm complaining, the right balance), and Gillespie... doesn't care? At least, doesn't care enough. Some of Stone's and Thompson's outfits get just enough of a showcase that it's satisfactory. There are dozens or hundreds of other costumes, which was the whole point of his movie, but when the film isn't self-impressed tracking shots that rarely manage to actually let you see these things for more than an eyeblink, it's a quick-cut montage and the camera barely even matters. Of course, at Cruella's worst, in dialogue scenes, it can just kind of sit there with the same "period" color grading as a movie set in the 1800s while it visibly shakes. I hate modern cinematography, and Cruella's is fairly bad even for our times.
I do not hate Cruella, though there is very little of value in it besides its antagonist's performance, aspects of its lead performance, and costume design you don't get to luxuriate in as much as you should. I would probably be even harder on it, but I am cautioned by the existence of another film that it has been frequently and not entirely inaptly compared to, and it's better than that in that it understands its pop culture icon at least slightly better (a grievous irony, considering Cruella De Vil is famous for one thing, two if you count obnoxiously smoking, and this Cruella does neither), and it serves as a vehicle for a crowdpleasing movie star to have some amount of fun with us, rather than a thespian going through a pretentious and mechanical acting exercise. Plus there's something about "fake art film" that bothers me more than "algorithmic popcorn movie." So I will only call it mediocre, though I guess I could've just taken Joker down to a 4.