First things first: No harm comes to the dogs (it’s hard to harm a digital dog). True, there’s one outfit that appears to be fashioned out of Dalmatian hide, but it’s a ruse. Come to think of it, the very presence of Dalmatians in Cruella is a ruse. They are a vicious bunch, the foot soldiers of The Baroness, the true villain in a story about a mischievous bad girl. Emma Thompson plays The Baroness—a high-end fashion designer—with such relish she practically steals the show from Emma Stone’s Estella/Cruella, but more on that in a moment.
Cruella is directed by Craig Gillespie, whose previous effort, 2017’s I, Tonya took a sympathetic approach to the Tonya Harding story, recasting the competitive figure skater not as the villain in the Nancy Kerrigan story but as the victim in her own. The culprit was not Harding’s ambition, but her social class, her choice of associates, and her pill of a mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, who won an Oscar for her performance). That movie worked; this one doesn’t. And not for lack of trying: The elements that brought energy and shading to I, Tonya are also present in Cruella; they just yield different results.
But before we get to all that, the story. Estella is a naughty little girl. Not evil, per se, but she is a hell-raiser for sure. Mom (Emily Beecham) knows there is good in there somewhere, maybe in her hair: Half is jet black; the other side is shock white. It’s a wonder no one comments on it. No one else in the movie seems to have hair like hers; you think it would be a bigger deal.
There’s a lot in Cruella that goes uncommented on. Take the fashion, for instance: Where does Estella get the fabric? When does she find the time to sew all those outfits? And from where does she draw inspiration? Some look like they were pulled from Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s store, Sex; others look like they were nicked from Mugatu’s Derelicte collection. The Swinging Sixties are an apparent reference, as is the ’70s London punk scene, but only to us watching. The soundtrack keys us in, and it’s a bit overwhelming. At times Cruella feels like it’s stuffed with more needle drops than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But the characters in that movie could hear the music. Here, the music is there just for the audience, which feels distancing. The one exception is a rock concert Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jaspar (Joel Fry) put on to distract the paparazzi from The Baroness’ show. Beyond that, it’s as if music doesn’t exist. No one talks about it, no one listens to it, and no one meets or name-drops a musician. Curious, considering how intertwined rock ‘n’ roll and fashion are. In one scene set in the ’60s, Estella wears a sport coat torn just so and decorated with safety pins. Are we to believe Estella is the progenitor of punk fashion? Maybe. In that lone rock concert, Estella/Cruella has dressed Horace in a leather bike jacket, spiked his hair, and dyed it Day-Glo orange. Just like John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, lead singer of The Sex Pistols. Only Horace and Jasper don’t play a Pistols song; they play The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”—chosen because this is the scene where everyone thinks Cruella has killed The Baroness’ Dalmatians and made a coat with their fur. It’s never a good sign when you’re this invested in the logic of the movie rather than the emotion of the moment.
Anyway, Estella wants to be a designer so badly she’s willing to take the honest route and work her way to the top. Naturally, the people above her make her life hell. But Estella’s got true talent, and it catches the eye of The Baroness, who whisks her over to her house and makes Estella’s life sheer misery. With every indignity, Estella becomes less Estella and more Cruella. If these scenes feel like lukewarm retreads from The Favourite, it’s probably because screenwriter Tony McNamara worked on that movie too.
Cruella cranks through all of this at a demonic clip but never really does anything with it. It’s a mile wide and an inch deep. The performances are committed, sure, and the movie refuses to settle for a tired remake of a mid-century Disney classic. It’s as if the filmmakers’ one concern was not to bore. In that regard, they succeed. Too bad they forgot to make it engaging as well.
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Screenplay by Dana Fox, Tony McNamara
Story by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis
Based on the novel One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
Produced by Kristin Burr, Andrew Gunn, Marc Platt
Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Mark Strong
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 134 minutes, Opens in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere on May 28, 2021