A film review by Craig J. Koban September 8, 2021


2021, PG-13, 135 mins.

Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil / Estella  Emma Thompson as Baroness von Hellman  /  Mark Strong as Boris  /  Joel Fry as Jasper  /  Paul Walter Hauser as Horace  /  Emily Beecham as Catherine  /  Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita  /  Jamie Demetriou as Gerald  /  John McCrea as Artie  /  Abraham Popoola as George

Directed by Craig Gillespie  /  Written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, based on the book THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS by Dodie Smith

I was struck with three overwhelming thoughts while watching CRUELLA: 

1. The production/set/costume design of this film is sensational. 

2. This film rarely, if ever, makes a compelling case study that this titular character - first seeing the light of day in Disney's own 1961 animated classic 101 DALMATIANS - requires a live action origin story at all. 

3.  This film is a tremendous waste of director Craig Gillespie's sizeable talent, who previously made two of the best films of their respective years in LARS AND THE REAL GIRL and I, TONYA.  He also made the terribly underrated Disney produced maritime thriller in THE FINEST HOURS as well as, for my money, the finest remake of recent memory in FRIGHT NIGHT. 

CRUELLA, of course, is named after Cruella de Vil, the famous antagonist from Dodie Smith's 1956 novel THE HUNDRED AND ONE DAMNATIONS that was made even more famous with her appearance in the aforementioned animated feature.  I can certainly understand the motive for the House of Mouse wanting to repeatedly go back to the creative well with CRUELLA, seeing as they've made a concentrated - and in my opinion highly redundant - effort of retooling their classic animated film catalogue into live action iterations (actually, many seem to forget the 1996 Glenn Glose starring adaptation).  I will say, on a positive, that CRUELLA is not a slavish shot-for-shot remake ala, say, THE LION KING, mostly because it tries to dive into the character's backstory set over multiple time periods in history.  So, in some respects, CRUELLA isn't simply rehashing what has come before.  That, and the film looks staggeringly good, replete with dazzling costumes from two time Oscar winner Jenny Beaven, and she'll most likely get nominated again for her work here.  Beyond surface pleasures, though, CRUELLA is an unendingly long winded and hollow production that struggles to justify its existence and, as a result, comes off as another in a long line of recent cynical minded Disney cash grab pictures. 

CRUELLA is also not entirely clever in its execution...at least not as much as it thinks.  The DNA of MALEFICENT, for example, can be seen from a proverbial mile away here, another live action Disney adaptation of an animated film that also took one of the most iconic villains in their canon and retooled her as a misunderstood victim versus a thoroughly loathsome baddie (yeah...a lot more on that in a bit).  CRUELLA takes its inspiration by studying that film's blueprint, and in its case goes aggressively out of its way to soften the Cruella de Vil character that was so abundantly cruel in past incarnations, making her someone to relate to and potentially root on as an anti-hero.  The film opens in the mid-60s with the young Cruella-to-be in Estella (Emma Stone), who lives with her struggling mother that tries as she can to make it as an up-and-coming fashion designer.  After a brutal accident that took her momma's life (that she blames on a pack of guard Dalmatians), Emma takes to a life on the streets to fend for herself and is eventually befriended by a pair of petty thieves in Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and over the next several years they become a powerhouse grifting team.   



It's also during this time when Estella's full love of fashion begins to blossom, and after winning over one of the top designers in Europe, the Baroness (Emma Thompson), with her skills, the street hustler is allowed to join her clothing empire.  Once on the inside, however, Estella learns - in a pure THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA fashion - that the Baroness is a vindictive social monster that will step on anyone and anything to be on top.  Plus, the Baroness takes great relish in taking full credit for other people's work, which angers Estella to no end.  She eventually decides to plot a long con game of vengeful comeuppance against her boss, donning the moniker of Cruella and engaging in a guerrilla-like publicity war against the Baroness using avant garde fashion as her primary weapons.  Cruella simply wants to hurt and humiliate the Baroness at all costs and become the top fashionista dog of 1970s London. 

Of the few things I admired in CRUELLA the chief among them is, as mentioned, the visual tapestry.  This is an absorbingly stylish period picture that really has fun tapping into the grunge underground roots of its decade in question.  If you want to see two Academy Award winning actresses go toe-to-toe while wearing opulent eye candy apparel then CRUELLA will certainly wet your appetitive for such pleasures.  Costume designer Beaven, art director Martin Foley, and production designer Fiona Crombie ensure that every penny of this film's budget (reportedly to be as high as $150-plus million!) is on screen for all to see.  As a pure imagery showcase reel, CRUELLA is routinely on point.  That, and the film deserves props for trying to have a bit more raw edge and nerve than the relative slew of other family friendly Disney remakes.  This film traverses down some dark psychological territory, and some of the unpleasant nastiness on display helps to separate itself apart from the pack. 

But, wow, CRUELLA commits so many unpardonable sins along the way that are hard to overlook, which frankly started to take me out of the film very early on.  This is an extremely slow moving story right out of the gate, and it takes nearly an hour before Estella's odd coming of age arc starts to gain serious momentum.  The tonal zones that the makers are trying to homogenize here are also chaotically all over the map.  Sometimes, CRUELLA wants to be macabre, whereas at other moments it yearns to embrace camp and is overplayed to the point of - pardon the expression - cartoony extremes.  This is a film that's just unsure of itself and with no cohesive game plan of attack.  One truly annoying thing that Gillespie insists on as well is a non-stop barrage of soundtrack tunes from the eras in question being constantly blasted in the background.  I don't have a problem with this jukebox approach in general, but it's done to distracting overkill levels here.  It's just so lethargically lathered in, almost as if Gillespie and company think that these classic songs will compliment and amplify the mood of individual scenes.  Instead, this choice becomes more tedious by the minute and shows the fundamental lack of imagination on display. 

The largest negative elephant in the room here is Cruella herself.  Was there any burning desire to see this legendary evildoer brought to life again in live action form and - sigh - be re-branded as a troubled, but sympathetic heroine?  Cruella was so indefensibly twisted in the original animated film (she had a lustful appetite to kill doggies, for crying out loud), so how could any film make her compellingly sympathetic?  What vital revelations could see the light of day to allow for such an incredulous character transformation?  The most basic of answers that CRUELLA provides are (a) her mommy was killed by dalmatians (or, was she???) and (b) her boss was a despicable power hungry bitch.  Like...that's it.  Cruella is easily one of the most memorable and dastardly villains in cinematic history, but in CRUELLA she becomes a folk hero of the people that wants to point out who are the real villains of the world.  Huh?  I can certainly understand Estella wanting to don a new persona and punish The Baroness, a very bad person in her own right.  But I simply never became immersed in this clash between the pair, mostly because there's very little depth or complexity to the relationship of these characters.  There were ample opportunities for the film to tackle Cruella's insatiable appetite for material consumer goods while on her revenge plan, but CRUELLA is not up to the task of such thorny critiques.  In the most crude form, Cruella is a spunky outsider that this film wants us to think is hip, trendy, and cool.  How this person becomes the Cruella de Vil that we have come to know and hate is simply beyond me. 

Yeah...yeah...I know.  This is a "re-imagining" of her mythology.  I totally get that.  I just wasn't with it...or buying it...or interested in it.  Oddly enough, CRUELLA was trying to be a PG-ified version of JOKER, but the former makes the fatal mistake of fully defanging its villain as opposed to fully deep diving into the twisted psyche of this damaged person and showing her in an understandable light while also relaying that, yes, she's seriously deranged.  Considering the film's laborious and unnecessary 134 minute length, you'd think that more care and attention to the scripting and core character dynamics would have happened.  I ultimately felt kind of badly for both Stone and Thompson, because both of them fully invest in their respective characters, albeit with what's given to them on paper.  Thompson has a field day hamming it up to show the Baroness' stone cold hatred of the world around her, and Stone has fun in pure vamp mode.  CRUELLA has talent in front of and behind the camera, and is a wondrous visual odyssey, to be sure.  I liked looking at this film, but just didn't care about anything that happened in it.  As Derek Zoolander might say, there has got to be more to this film than being really, really, really, ridiculously good looking. 

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