Starring: Emma Stone (La La Land), Emma Thompson (Late Night), Joel Fry (Yesterday), Paul Walter Hauser (BlacKkKlansman), John McCrea (God’s Own Country), Emily Beecham (Daphne), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Kayvan Novak (Paddington), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (The Good Place)
Director: Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya)
Writers: Dana Fox (Isn’t It Romantic) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite)
Runtime: 2 hours 14 minutes
Release Date: 28th May (US, UK, Disney+)
It seems Disney can’t really win when it comes to these reboots and reimaginings. Stick too close to the source material, and they end up with basically the exact same film with a shinier coat of paint. Do something original, and what we get is something that misses the point of its inspiration entirely. This was the fate that befell Maleficent, a contentious retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story that turned its titular mistress of evil into a PTSD-fuelled anti-hero pissed off at her ex, and now Disney has decided to give another of its villains a similar makeover. However, Cruella de Vil presents a greater issue in humanisation than even Maleficent because her villainy is far too human. She’s not just a criminal, but an animal abuser and attempted murderer fuelled by greed and narcissism; turning that into someone you can sympathise with is a tall order. Cruella at least seems aware of its problematic origins but, along with pretty much everything about the film, it handles it in a disappointingly sloppy manner.
Cruella takes cues from a lot of different films to create its bizarre identity, but if I had to narrow it down to a few, it’s Solo: A Star Wars Story mixed with The Devil Wears Prada with a dash of Ocean’s Eleven and a little A Hard Day’s Night on the side. On the surface level, there’s a lot to like about it despite its patchwork nature. It’s certainly too long at over two hours, but it has an infectious camp energy that keeps it from ever being boring. There’s some standout set pieces, some good gags and just a lot of buoyant and cathartic fun, but it ultimately means very little when the core of the film is so formulaic, inconsistent and awkward. Whilst it’s very clear that Cruella doesn’t take itself too seriously, the story expects you to buy into a lot of absurd reveals and twists; its inciting conceit, one which spurs our protagonist’s main motivation, is one of those that may turn off many audiences before the movie can even get started. The plot from there is best described as episodic and scattershot, lurching from point to point in a manner that makes it feel like they’re just making up the story as they go. This indecision comes majorly into play when addressing its source material, and by its end it still can’t decide if it wants to be a functional prequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians or some alt-universe revisionist reboot. It’s all emblematic of a film that shoots for the moon aesthetically and tonally, but in terms of story and character always defaults to the easiest, cowardly option. Director Craig Gillespie was a great choice for this material and he’s clearly having a lot of fun with it, but the lazy and unfocused screenplay is ultimately what lets it all down.
The very obvious reason Disney opted to go with a prequel/reboot rather than a traditional remake is that they already did that back in 1996 and, whether you like that film or not, Glenn Close’s performance as Cruella is iconic and hard to top. Putting aside her questionable English accent, Emma Stone does a lot to make the role her own, creating a dynamic and boisterous character who’s a blast to watch. The film’s new conceit is that the character essentially has dissociative identity disorder, flitting between the calm and calculated Estella and her cruel, egotistical alter ego Cruella. It’s a divisive choice to be sure, but Stone does admirably in making the two personalities distinct beyond a wig and eyeliner. What ultimately scuppers this Cruella is once again how it tries to have its cake and eat it with her more devious nature. Reframing the character as a desperate orphan who just wants to make it in the fashion industry is one thing, but completely retconning her animal abuse and trying to playing it off in a “wink wink, nudge nudge” fashion is a total cop out. In fact, if you take away all the iconography, the character barely resembles Cruella de Vil anymore, and the film might have been better if it had dropped the pretence and made it an original story…but that wouldn’t be as marketable.
Luckily, one of the film’s biggest saving graces is its supporting cast, all of whom clearly understood the assignment. Emma Thompson has an absolute ball chewing the scenery as the psychotic Baroness, imbuing the deliciously evil role with the energy of a panto dame doing a Miranda Priestly impression. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser make for a great double act as Cruella’s partners-in-crime Jasper and Horace, whilst John McCrea steals what few scenes he has as fashionista Artie. Even some of the smaller roles, like Jamie Demetriou as Estella’s snooty manager at the department store, or Andrew Leung as the Baroness’ curt assistant, imbue the film with a lot of campy fun. Mark Strong is well-suited to the role of Thompson’s valet yet perhaps a little overqualified for such a perfunctory role, whilst Kayvan Novak and Kirby Howell-Baptiste put in decent performances but add very little but to be yet another unnecessary call-back to the original film.
As previously said, Cruella absolutely goes for it when it comes to the aesthetics and, judged purely by its looks, it is a gorgeously crafted picture. The costumes, hair and make-up alone make it worth watching, with iconic fashion moments that will surely inspire many a Disney fan’s cosplay at their next fan convention. The cinematography is grand and playful, and the production design is theatrical and kitschy in all the best ways. With that said, as good as the film looks, its somewhat marred by how it sounds. Cruella apparently has a score by Oscar-nominated composer Nicholas Britell, but you’d be hard pressed to realize that because the film’s music is made up almost entirely by 60s/70s rock and pop songs. If you thought Suicide Squad abused needle drops, you have seen nothing until you’ve seen Cruella and its three dozen licensed tracks, each playing one after the other in rapid succession, often making the film feel more like an overlong music video than a narrative feature. All of the song choices are great, even if a lot of them are super on-the-nose (e.g.: as soon as they start blaring “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges, you should know what’s coming), but great songs do not always necessarily equal a great soundtrack.
I honestly wish I could like Cruella, because it is stylish and pretty and a lot of fun in the moment, but it’s a hot mess when you think about it for more than a second. There’s a lot here that works and it’s clear much of the cast and crew threw their all into it, but it fails to find a satisfying solution to the inherent problem of making a Cruella de Vil origin story. More than any of Disney’s recent live-action efforts, this feels like a marketing exercise; a way to revise the Cruella character and make it OK for kids to buy gothy branded merchandise without having to acknowledge the elephant in the room that she’s a literal canine killer. I can understand why certain audiences may be able to overlook all of its flaws and just embrace it as glitzy, meaningless entertainment, but it’s far too artificial and calculated to enjoy on that level; it’s the cinematic equivalent of a bank-sponsored Pride parade float. Wake me up when they turn this into a so-bad-its-good jukebox stage musical, and maybe then I’ll get on board. Otherwise, just wait for this to leave Premium Access on Disney+ or don’t even bother.
FINAL VERDICT: 5/10