Movie Review: ‘Cruella’

Director: Craig Gillespie

Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong, John McCrea

Plot: Estella Miller is a fashion-obsessed orphaned girl who makes her way from being a pickpocket to staging elaborate heists.

Review: One can’t imagine that Disney’s live-action remake bubble has long to go before it pops. The Lion King did gang-busters at the box-office but left the public discourse very quickly. Dumbo left audiences and critics shrugging and the less said about Mulan the better. With audiences showing fatigue with the trend, they needed something left-of-centre to reinvigorate the concept. That brings us to Cruella, a live action prequel to 101 Dalmatians that tells the story of that film’s iconic villain, Cruella de Vil. A wild, colourful romp through the fashion world of 1970s London could be just the stylistic departure Disney needed.

Emphasis on style.

On the flip-side of the coin, we never need bloody prequels. The Hollywood idea of a prequel story is to add a ridiculous amount of importance to incidental art designs. Audience’s never needed to know how Han Solo and Jack Sparrow got their names, they never cared who built C3-P0 or created the xenomorphs. They certainly didn’t give a shit about some previously never mentioned secret brother to Dumbledore. This movie seeks to explain such incidentals including how Cruella got the name Cruella. Apparently that’s something we needed to know. Like with Captain Jack and Han Solo, I just assumed that was her name.

It’s hard to know what they’re trying to achieve with this movie. It doesn’t work as an addition to the story in 101 Dalmatians because there are drastic changes to characters and setting. Cruella was initially written as a spoilt heiress with an obsession with furs who isn’t above murdering puppies for the right look. That’s what made her such a classic villain – she was despicable. This Cruella (Stone) is an orphan who grew up on the streets with Jasper (Fry) and Horace (Hauser) pulling cons and schemes. Originally she was friends with Anita in college, but now Anita is a journalist she briefly knew as a child.

So we can instead look at this as a totally original character. Except that doesn’t work because of the aforementioned obsession with Hollywood prequels explaining incidental character details. It’s not enough that Cruella wants the puppies to feed to demented drive for the perfect fur coat, we have to have a manufactured reason for why she hates Dalmatians. And if you think they’re going to do something ridiculous, like Cruella’s mother being pushed off a cliff by some Dalmatians…well…

What we end up with is a movie that has shot itself in the foot because it can’t be its own thing, and it can’t be a prequel. It wants all the brand recognition of an iconic character but none of the baggage of an established story. This becomes particularly silly during the post credits scene.

It’s time to look at what is left once you get away from the stickiness of trying to reinvent a character like Cruella de Vil. Estella was born with bicoloured hair, something she was bullied over as a child. Prior to this she was already a cruel character, so much that her mother scolds her for being ‘Cruella’ instead of Estella. She’s also got an obsession with fashion and attacking the norm from an early age. By the end of the story, she is…exactly the same. It’s hard to have a character arc for a villain if they don’t change from the get-go.

To pass the time we follow Estella as she works her way into a job with fashion diva The Baroness (Thompson). It then turns out that, but astounding coincidence, The Baroness also killed her mother. Although it takes a long time for them to get the conflict set up and rolling, it is this rivalry that makes for the most fun viewing. Both Emmas Stone and Thompson compliment each other and their hijinks are bombastic and wild. The over-large cast of support characters are fine, but they’re just there to move the needlessly convoluted story along. Usually in the place of a story, we have a plot twist every half-hour or so to motivate Cruella to pursue her rivalry against The Baroness. Although it’s never made clear why the Baroness’s usually tight security can’t stop a garbage truck from reversing its way up to the front door of her events.

This could be seen as a blend of Oceans 11-style heist movies and The Devil Wears Prada, but doesn’t delve into either genre enough to make either aspect compelling. It doesn’t work as a character study, because the character never changes her story is driven by external forces. She even lifts the entire finale from V For Vendetta. It looks an absolute treat, and showcases good performances from the leads, but that’s all you need to come for. The soundtrack is a real collection of classics, quite enjoyed that.

I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if this does generate an audience, though. It’s got a distinct aesthetic and that alone will be enjoyable enough to visually indulgent folk. Cosplayers are gonna be having a field day. There’s a chance I’m going to enjoy the art that emerges from this production more than the film itself.

Oh, I almost forgot…this is another instance of Disney’s “first openly gay character”. This, of course, is more first than Lefou in Beauty and the Beast, and a couple kissing out-of-focus in the background of Rise of the Skywalker, and a cop who mentions being in a same-sex marriage in Onward. The problem here is that while Disney were very quick to pat themselves on the back for their remarkable inclusiveness and putting out click-bait headlines, their gay characters flit past so quickly you’d have missed them if you were taking a bathroom break or having a rather long blink. Well, this is a big step for Disney as this time the gay character is on screen for almost two minutes of total screen time. Who knows, maybe the next ‘first’ gay character will have a personality or even impact upon the story.

Rating: FOUR out of TEN