By Noah Gittell
It’s easy to be cynical about “Cruella.” In some ways, the new Disney film set in the “101 Dalmations” universe appears to be yet another studio cash grab, in which some very risk-averse executives tear apart a classic film looking for a scrap of newness to sell. This is not exactly a new tactic. It’s the same thinking that once produced “Jaws 3-D” and “Superman: Quest for Peace,” but of late there’s a new trend: showing us how a villain was made. Netflix did it with “Ratched,” a series that gave unnecessary backstory to the brutal nurse from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; DC did it with “Joker,” earning attention from the Oscars; and Disney has done it twice now with the “Maleficent” movies, explaining how the evil godmother from “Sleeping Beauty” became so damn evil.
Still, “Cruella” demonstrates that a balance can be struck between shameless commercialism and artistic vision. It vacillates between bold brush strokes and a paint-by-numbers approach, and while it’s hard to overlook its familiar flaws, it’s impossible to ignore its virtues.
The story of Cruella begins with Estella (Emma Stone), a young orphan with a happy existence on the streets of London sometime in the ‘70s. After losing her mother in a tragic accident, she teams up with two pickpockets (played as grown-ups by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), who squat in an abandoned warehouse and pull small-time grifts on unsuspecting Londoners. The boys know all the tricks, while Estella, who has a knack for fashion, designs their outfits. Her Dickensian existence is interrupted when she cons her way into a dream job working for The Baroness (Emma Thompson), an acid-tongued fashion designer famous for her impeccable style and wanton cruelty.
Smart casting can make a movie, and here the two Emmas clash delightfully; in Thompson’s icy stare and casual put-downs we can project a fierce disdain for the young upstart faking an English accent. Stone acquits herself well enough, although lacks access to the inner madness her transformation, egged on by both the Baroness’s nastiness and a clever reveal about her past, into the legendary villain requires. Stone is much better suited to playing pickpocket with the two charming English delinquents, and frankly a story solely about their low-stakes adventures in ‘70s London would have been good enough.
But “Cruella” comes alive visually as our vengeful protagonist wields her creativity to take aim at the Baroness. Setting herself up as a designer, Cruella stages public confrontations that are more like performance art to upstage her rival, earn headlines, and generally drive the Baroness into a frenzy. Director Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”) shoots these sequences with verve, employing the iconography of ‘70s punk to paint Cruella as the new hipness and the Baroness as the stodgy past. Cruella is all searing reds and slippery blues; the Baroness favors black-and-white parties.
It’s lively enough to make you forgive how lazily “Cruella” lifts its story from other recent blockbusters. There’s a relationship here between Estella and a journalist that feels like a “Spider-Man” ripoff; a heist scene that recalls “Ocean’s 8”; and a central relationship that owes more than a bit to “The Devil Wears Prada.” The screenplay’s insistence on speaking its subtext aloud also takes a toll, reaching its zenith in the midpoint monologue that finds Stone forced to read the words, “I am no longer Estella. I am Cruella.” Just in case it wasn’t clear from the, you know, everything.
These are the trade-offs we must make for blockbuster filmmaking in 2021, and, if we’re being honest, for much longer than that. All franchise films struggle to exist in the moment. They each have one eye on the past and another on the future. “Cruella” is guilty of this evil, too, but then there are stretches when you forget about “101 Dalmatians” altogether and simply get caught up in the story of this specific person at this time in a place that feels both connected to history and created out of whole cloth. Somewhere between off-the-rack and haute couture, “Cruella” is the best version of a bad design.
“Cruella” is available to stream on Disney Plus and in theaters this Friday.