Cruella is one of the more bizarre films I have watched for some time, and what makes reviewing it frustrating is that it wouldn’t have to be if it only made up its damn mind. I could never tell if this was intentionally setting itself up as a prequel to the original animated classic, or as a complete revisionist take. Because I’ll be upfront, if this film is a prequel, then it is abhorrently manipulative and does not deserve its performances or talent. If, on the other hand, this is a completely clean slate with an all-new character, then this might be my favorite live-action remake.
There is no way of fully describing why this film is both functional and frustrating without going into details, so consider this a spoiler warning. The movie opens with young Estella and her single mother struggling through post-war England. These scenes are filled with moments where Estella is doing her best to follow her mother’s instructions, yet gets into trouble at school and around town. Who is Estella you might ask? Well, it is explained that Estella is the true main character and her troubled side is Cruella. “Be Estella,” her mother says, “not Cruella.” Your guess is as good as mine as to if this means she has a split personality or not. The movie plays fast and loose with this often.
The choppy plot has issues, but the stakes are very clear and it is the first of Disney’s remake line to be nearly totally consistent in tone. And these performances are amazing. Emma Stone deserves some true recognition for, if nothing else, doing what even Glenn Close could not do and that is to make Cruella feel like a real person. Rather than a cackling cartoon invading the real world (like Glenn), Stone is very quick and downplayed, saving the extravagance for when her other personality (side?) comes out…or is created. It is a little complicated…just like this movie.
At one point halfway through Disney’s Cruella, the titular character and her small-time crook henchman, Jasper (played by Joel Fry), have a serious rooftop conversation regarding the ramifications of murder. Partway into discussing whether or not Cruella is capable of killing, Cruella says “Well, we don’t know that yet. I’m still young.” Emma Stone said the line with such conviction and snideness that I instantly burst out laughing. However, my laughter was anything other than innocent, and more reflected Jasper’s immediate retort: “It’s funny. Or it would be if I knew you were being funny.” This one exchange lasts all of five seconds amid a film filled with quick-cut editing and breakneck pace, yet its small presence epitomized my sum total of emotions while watching the movie and exemplified the dichotomy at the center of its narrative: Am I supposed to be frightened or laughing?
It is important to remember for all the kids sitting at the back of the room that all Cruella wanted in the original 101 Dalmatians was to kill and skin 101 puppies…for clothing. That’s it. She was the embodiment of baseless decadence, and scenes like the aforementioned conversation fills one with dread as to if or when that bomb will go off. Adapting the character for their own solo outing was always going to push buttons, but I wish the filmmakers would have done more of their own thing rather than rely on the character they have to work with.
There is one part of the movie where the story’s manipulation is front and center. Estella and her mother head to a party being thrown by the Baroness (Emma Thomson), a mega mogul fashion icon taking all the UK by storm. Estella is sneaking around the festivities when her mother disappears into the garden outside. Following her from a safe distance, she watches her talk with a strange masked woman who is accompanied by three bitter and vicious dalmatians. Estella’s mother is standing with her back to a cliffside, and the lady is getting closer as are the hungry teeth. For those asking themselves “the movie isn’t going that way…is it?” Yes, it is. The strange woman pulls out a whistle and all three of them attack. Estella’s mother goes over a cliff.
This early in the movie it feels like “dogs killed my mother” is a poor excuse for her actions later on in life. In the moment, it felt cheap. From this point, little scarred Estella wanders the streets before encountering Jasper and Horace. These little pickpockets have cased every alley and know their way around town. She joins them and they develop into a prominent underground gang through punk 1970’s London. From this point on the movie’s design shines. The grimy punk aesthetic blended with gothic London is a visual highlight of the film that it exploits in every best way possible. From the clothes to the cars, the hair, and all the classic rock music it is hard not to become engrossed.
I couldn’t help but enjoy the anarchic fervor at which Emma Stone embraced her diva persona. She makes Estella about talking, and Cruella about emotion and expressions. Plus the interactions between her, Jasper, and Horace are well written with crisp dialogue, as is with her and an LGBTQ shopkeeper, Artie (played by John McCrea), who shows up now and again to…provide witty lines. Incidentally, I was torn between thinking this was an improvement on Disney’s previous headlines baiting “WE HAVE GAY CHARACTERS TOO” only to walk around it, or if this was just continuing the tradition. Yet Artie feels sympathetic enough to be regarded as a character who contributes and has enough of a past to be interesting even if he comes across as a little two-dimensional.
However, it feels like the movie wants to have it both ways. I wanted to reach into the screen, grab the movie and tell it that the new Cruella it created was far more interesting. A fashion stunt icon with a gothic sense of style and an underground criminal network? This person is one step away from being a Batman character. Either this person is going to be that despicable and decadent creature in the original or this new one.
I can’t decide if it is more than just a confused cash grab, catching whatever greatness it sees on its own runway or just bright flashes between lazy plotting. But at least it is well-acted and looks good. I suppose to some that is a ringing endorsement and to others that means the movie did itself in. Either way, Cruella is a movie. Of that much I am certain.