Whatever movie you’re expecting from Cruella, you’d be wrong. Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of one of their signature animated classics reimagines the famous socialite with a taste for Dalmatian fur as a misunderstood orphan with dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She doesn’t hate dogs; one is her constant companion. That doesn’t mean Cruella is a cutesy adventure for kids, though; it’s a two-hour and 15 minute tour through the London fashion world of the 1970s, with Cruella as a kind of couture superhero, complete with an alter ego, lavish costumes, impressive fighting moves — yes, Cruella appears to know martial arts in this one — and an arch-nemesis to destroy with her incredible powers of fabric construction.
That arch-nemesis would be “The Baroness,” played by Emma Thompson. Cruella — real name Estella (Emma Stone) — falls into the Baroness’ orbit after she creates a provocative window display at a posh London department store called Liberty. (This may be a metaphor, I’m not sure.) Earlier, a prologue followed Estella as she was orphaned at a young age and joined up with a pair of streetwise pickpockets who turn out to be Jasper and Horace, the Badun brothers from the earlier 101 Dalmatians films. This time, they’re played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, respectively.
While an endless playlist of vintage rock blasts from the soundtrack, the film plots Estella’s transformation into Cruella — although in this version she’s less cruel and more emotionally troubled by a lifetime of poor treatment. She accepts a gig at the Baroness’ company, then discovers her dream job comes with a nightmare boss. Further twists that I won’t spoil — although if you’re paying attention, you’ll figure them out long before our heroine does — push Estella over the edge, and she adopts a new persona as “Cruella,” a brilliant designer with a wicked sense of humor and a desire to usurp the Baroness’ position as the greatest fashion maven in London.
The Baroness doesn’t recognize that her new rival is also her new protégé, despite the fact that she works closely with Estella and has long conversations with Cruella, who barely disguises her identity beneath a different hairdo. Whatever; if we can accept that Lois Lane doesn’t see Superman beneath Clark Kent’s glasses, we can buy that the Baroness is incredibly slow to piece together Estella’s secret identity. The bigger issue is that Cruella, as directed by Craig Gillespie, never really brings any tension or suspense to the battle of wills between the two. The early scenes of Estella’s life on the streets of London crackle with energy. Her first day on the job at Liberty — again, possible metaphor alert — gets introduced in this elaborate tracking shot that zooms over the building, in through a skylight, around the showroom, down into the basement, deeper into an endless maze of corridors, until it finally finds our heroine at the bottom of the corporate ladder, scrubbing a toilet.
Then she starts working for the Baroness and the movie settles into a sluggish cycle of scenes: Estella gets abused, she does something to annoy the Baroness as Cruella, Baroness gets mad, and so on, over and over, with very little escalation of stakes until late in the movie. There’s no gradual discovery of Cruella’s plan, or any moments where her identity might accidentally get spilled to heighten the suspense. It’s just that repeating pattern of scenes with different spectacular costumes by Jenny Beavan. And the costumes are spectacular — it’s just that they’re the only exciting thing onscreen for the middle hour of the film.
That includes Stone and Thompson, who are almost upstaged by their outrageous clothes. Despite the excessive runtime, the film doesn’t quite “get” Estella/Cruella. It keeps the character and her multiple personalities at arm’s length, never expressing whether she is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown or just really passionate about vengeful cosplay. It also all the heavy lifting of humanizing Cruella by demonizing Thompson’s Baronness instead; she remains less defined than Cruella was as the villain of the original 101 Dalmatians movie. (It must be noted, however, that Cruella does provide an extremely convincing reason why a woman would want to turn a bunch of Dalmatians into a coat.)
True to form, after a few meaningful surprises in its opening scenes, most of Cruella’s final act is painfully predictable — at least until one moment that’s so bizarre it’s kind of laughable. I suspect some may give Cruella a pass simply because it does have a genuinely quirky vibe, along with a slightly darker than your standard Disney fare. The gonzo period fashions are fun as well. Ultimately, though, the film feels less like a satisfying character drama than a work of corporate rebranding — for Disney as well as for Cruella herself.
-Cruella has garnered some pre-release headlines for including “the 1st officially out and proud Disney character.” That’s Artie, played by John McCrea, who is extremely tangential to the plot and appears in only a few minor scenes. If he is a step forward for Disney with regards to representation, it’s only because this is the company whose previous high-water mark in this regard was the borderline non-existent “exclusively gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast.
–Cruella does contain a mid-credits scene. My advice: Leave the theater before it plays.
Cruella premieres in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Sign up for Disney+ here.