Director: Craig Gillespie
Writers: Dana Fox, Tony McNamara
Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter, Hauser, Mark Strong
Cinematographer: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Streaming on: DisneyPlus Hotstar
"It's not hatred that's important, it's the desire to annihilate," says a character in 101 Dalmations (1996), describing the one quality a villain must inspire in order to be successful. The titular character of Cruella, an origin story for that film's antagonist, evokes neither. One of its many, many needle-drops is The Rolling Stones's 'Sympathy For The Devil' but even after two hours and 14 minutes, the film comes nowhere close to painting her as one. Instead, she's reimagined as a sympathetic character who's lived a hardscrabble life, loves dogs and misses her dead mum fiercely. Are we really meant to root for the same woman who'd go on to skin puppies? Cruella attempts to be several films at once — a heightened glimpse of the fashion scene, a heist movie, a revenge tale — and isn't half bad at any of them, only hurt by its insistence on serving as an origin story for this well-known character. What could've been a gripping narrative about a woman gradually giving in to her darker impulses is undercut by its need to tie into a family-friendly Disney property.
Cruella's initial narration plays out like an odious stepmother gleefully reading out a particularly dark fairytale to the children. "Don't worry, we're just getting started. There's lots more bad things coming, I promise," she coos at one point. While the benefit of hindsight can contextualise a story, Cruella (Emma Stone) uses hers to rewrite the narrative. She's adamant that signs of her genius are apparent from an early age, despite little visual evidence, and attributes schoolyard brawls to feminist underpinnings, rather than mere childish rage. Some bits of her backstory, like how she got her 'Cruella' moniker, are convincing. Others, like her mother's death, a laughably absurd sequence, less so. The people in Cruella's orbit behave as though they know they're characters in a film. Her friends, Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald), are scrappy and precocious, her mother is ever-ready to cater to her whims. This characterisation only makes sense when viewed through the lens of an adult recalling childhood memories.
Director Craig Gillespie's kinetic camerawork works best in a scene in which he swirls around the interiors of a department store that the now-adult Cruella's begun working at, only to finally arrive at her, scrubbing a toilet floor, one level down. In a nice touch, the film has ditched its fairytale atmosphere. A few scenes later, however, it opts for a heaping of The Devil Wears Prada instead, once Cruella begins working for Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an exacting fashion designer whose words drip with perpetual disdain. The two Emmas play wonderfully off each other, with Thompson delivering commands and praise with equal measured relish. The costumes, by Oscar-winning designer Jenny Beavan, are stunning.
The film, however, flies off the rails when Cruella does. The arc of a woman uncovering a tragic secret about her past and subsequently deciding to self-sabotage, pushing away those closest to her, makes narrative sense on paper but induces total tonal whiplash onscreen. Stone leans full-tilt into the maniacal 'Cruella' alter ego, complete with a hokey accent and garish white face paint. Taking her cues from All About Eve (1950), in which an interloper closely attempts to replicate her idol's lifestyle and gradually steal it away from her, she plots to bring down the Baroness. Only her plans involve showing up at places the Baroness is at and…being better dressed than her?
The cruel and manipulative Baroness is really the character more suited to a villain origin story. Cruella is still unlikeable, but her offences pale in comparison to the Baroness's capacity for inflicting torment, the older woman's jagged edges softening Cruella's by comparison. The film, already overstuffed, becomes a slog to sit through once the two begin their game of one-upmanship. By the end, it's not so much a clear-cut origin story as it is a muddled, too-long franchise filler, unable to provide insight into why Cruella began skinning animals for fashion in the first place. She's still all bark, no bite.