It’s the origin story that no one asked for but that doesn’t seem to matter to the suits at Disney who never miss an opportunity to milk their vast IP of beloved animated tales with live action turns at the trough. There is no doubt that CRUELLA will be profitable and will probably spawn a sequel or two but is it worth going back to the cinema for?
As the title screams, CRUELLA is about one of literature’s and cinema’s most recognizable villains, Cruella De Vil, of The One Hundred and One Dalmatians fame, its literary sequels, all its film and stage adaptations, and numerous pop culture references. In this outing though, we get to meet Cruella when she’s known as Estella, the plucky, naturally duotone-coiffed, 12-year-old daughter of Catherine (Emily Beecham, LITTLE JOE), an impoverished laundry woman. It’s the 1960s and after Catherine dies suddenly, Estella finds herself on the streets of London where she meets two street urchins pulled straight from a Dickens novel. Together, they commit a series of low-end grifts with the help of their two, cute-as-buttons, pet dogs.
Moving to the early ’70s, Estella (now played by Emma Stone, THE FAVOURITE; BATTLE OF THE SEXES; LA LA LAND; IRRATIONAL MAN) decides it’s time to go straight and she lands an entry-level job at Liberty’s, the luxury department store, where she hopes to follow her passion for dress design. After a few hiccups, that eventually happens and she’s brought under the wing of the store’s head designer, the wealthy and narcissistic Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson, DOLITTLE; LAST XMAS; MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL; BRIDGET JONES’S BABY; SAVING MR. BANKS). When Estella learns that the Baroness is responsible for her mother’s death, she makes it her life’s mission to destroy her benefactor. Along with her grifting pals, Jasper (now played by Joel Fry, YESTERDAY) and Horace (now played by Paul Walter Houser, RICHARD JEWELL; BLACKKKLANSMAN; I, TONYA); her new friend, vintage fashion shop owner Artie (John McCrae, G-D’S OWN COUNTRY); and her childhood friend Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, TV’s VERONICA MARS), Estella, who now goes by the name Cruella, mounts a series of very public stunts that not only highlight her talent as a designer but also show up the Baroness’ fashions as being old-fashioned. The Baroness, however, is not one to take matters lying down and it’s game on as the two women try to outscheme each other. Along the way, they learn something very important about each other. One could say they’re cut from the same piece of cloth.
While CRUELLA is fairly enjoyable fare with some fun performances by the Emmas (and especially Thompson, who out-vamps Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly here), Houser and McCrae, you’ll need to forget about anything you ever thought you knew about Cruella De Vil when you go into this film. Screenwriters Dana Fox (WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS) and Tony McNamara (THE FAVOURITE) throw much of Cruella’s canon into the dumpster with the biggest headscratcher being whether or not she likes dalmatians. Here, she does. Presumably, in the sequel, and it’s already been announced that there will be one, she won’t. The pair also frame Cruella as a misunderstood super-villain along the lines of Joker in Todd Phillip’s film from 2019. Here, Cruella is a good person who was dealt a lousy hand in life. She’s also an incredibly talented and feted designer in the vein of Vivienne Westwood, which makes me wonder how the writers will be able to make her business empire fall on hard times in the sequel.
But that’s only part of CRUELLA’s problem. The film is far too long, clocking in at just short of two and a quarter hours. The film’s first act alone runs for 55 minutes. CRUELLA could easily have been thirty minutes shorter with many cuts hitting the film’s ridiculously expansive soundtrack that features more than two dozen British Invasion hits and other popular American songs from the late ’60s and early ’70s. While that makes for a pleasant blast-from-the-past for Baby Boomers, it makes me wonder who director Craig Gillespie (I, TONYA) has made this film for. It’s certainly not for children, as evidenced by the PG-13 classification in the US.
Story, pacing and targeting issues aside, where the film really excels is in the costuming by two-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD; A ROOM WITH A VIEW). To quote Estella, they are “fabulous, darling”. Even though it’s only May, I’m predicting an Oscar nomination for Beavan for her creations here. It’s worth seeing CRUELLA for the costumes alone.
CRUELLA opened in cinemas globally last weekend. It’s also on Disney+ where available. While the film has more going for it than not, I don’t see that it’s going to be the gigantic money maker that the suits at Disney hope it will be.
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