Like many people, I’m asking why this film is here in the first place. I kind of get some of the motivation for making a Cruella film because Maleficent was somewhat of a success, but I kind of still thought it was an unwise idea at best. If anything, I actually would have taken another live-action 101 Dalmatians remake; it’s been a long time since we had the John Hughes film and a lot has changed. For one thing, it wouldn’t have to entirely try to capitalise on Hughes’s own success with Home Alone. And really, when you look back on that film it really is just Home Alone with dogs.
The film has been handed over to director Craig Gillespie whose last film they’d directed which I saw was I, Tonya, and he did a pretty decent job there. That being said though, none of the style he brought to that film seems to be here, bar a few scenes; it’s actually a much more over-the-top film this time, which obviously is not something a Disney production like this would call for. The film also makes an interesting choice in the casting, mainly with Emma Stone being cast in the lead role. Now, she has proven over the years she’s a very versatile actress so I thought if anyone could pull it off it would be her. And I was actually encouraged by interviews I’d heard of her talking about how she’d been looking into several previous versions of Cruella de Vil for the role. I’ll get more into my thoughts on what I thought about her as Cruella later.
The film is basically a prequel of 101 Dalmatians, with Cruella still living under her real name of Estella, running away to London after her mother dies, and getting into street thievery with her new friends Jasper and Horace. This is up until her later years when she decides to try and break into the fashion business by trying to work with a fashion mogul named The Baroness, played by Emma Thompson, only to find that she has her mother’s necklace. Estella then vows to work with Jasper and Horace to do one more grift to steal it back, and the “Cruella” identity gets formed as part of this grift. Do you know what’s amazing? What I’ve described there is just, I’d say, the first quarter or third of the film; Cruella tries to pack in so much. And my biggest problem with the film? It’s way too long, and it’s not because they didn’t cut anything but because there’s too much stuff in it. Including credits, it’s 2 hours and 15 minutes. It’s one of the longest films in these recent Disney nostalgia-pandering films, and the nostalgia-pandering is a big thing to mention. The majority of this film takes place during London in the 70s, and the 70s nostalgia is in this film a lot. There are a lot of references to the fashion industry around the time and it’s especially noted in the soundtrack, with songs like ‘Sympathy for The Devil’ by The Rolling Stones and, no joke, ‘Now I Want to Be Your Dog’ by Iggy Pop and The Stooges which is one of the most on the nose song choices ever.
The question then becomes, ‘Well, what’s Cruella’s characterisation like?’ Well, at times they kind of do a decent job. The thing is though that they don’t nail that sympathetic-villain-but-who-at-the-end-of-the-day-is-still-a-villain-and-needs-to-be-stopped. For one thing, there’s no progression in a downfall or a change like there is in a film like, say, Joker, which was something I was comparing it to a lot. Whereas Joker was trying to be Taxi Driver and King of Comedy pushed together, Cruella is clearly trying to be Ocean’s Eleven and The Devil Wears Prada pushed together, two films which are very different; this really caused real a tonal dissonance. That being said, some of the set pieces for this film are actually some of the better parts of it. The fact of the matter is though that this film is about Cruella and there’s no real growth of her character. It’s just kind of like a light switch being turned on; Estella and Cruella are almost treated like two separate personalities.
And, I’m sorry, Cruella De Vil does not work as a sympathetic villain. Disney really wrote themselves into a corner with this character—she is one of the most out-and-out awful characters that Disney has ever created. She’s the love-to-hate villain. Fans of the Kingdom Hearts game were begging to fight her when those games were coming out and they still never got that opportunity despite the fact that the Dalmatians were featured in the first game. I would say if there’s one villain I’ve always said is very comparable with Cruella it’s the Penguin, since they’re both mocking representations of high society. Cruella throws in a bit of a mocking representation of the fashion industry also and people that see animals as a means to an end. Now, I’ve never read the book of 101 Dalmatians but from what I’ve heard they never really dived into her back story in the book version, so they had a bit of a blank canvas to work with. But it still doesn’t really work. I had to remind myself that this is Cruella De Vil—she’s going to steal 15 puppies, acquired through various means, and another 84 puppies which she intends to kill, skin, and turn into a coat! I can’t detach that from this. The only way they can do it is to try to make the Baroness inspiration/an even more awful version of her, and the way they pander to that is unbelievable. These are the lengths we’re having to go to not have Cruella be the worst person in the room?
Emma Thompson plays the role of the Baroness fantastically and Emma Stone is good as Cruella, especially when she’s allowed to really be Cruella. She’s definitely borrowed quite a bit from previous versions but has also put her own little spin on it. In fact, the performances are actually pretty good all round. I like Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Jasper and Horace; John McCrea is pretty good as Artie, the fashion designer who Cruella recruits to start her label; and Mark Strong, as minimal as his screen-time is, is pretty good and plays into some of the later twists quite well. They even manage to put Roger and Anita in the whole thing to try and tie it into 101 Dalmatians.
Now, it’s not so much of a stretch with Anita considering that even in the original animated films and the books it’s mentioned that Cruella and Anita were friends from school, so that ties in fine, and Anita’s played this time by Kirby Howell-Baptiste who’s most remembered for being in the cast of Killing Eve. They’ve made a few changes, apart from the obvious fact that this time a black actress is in the role of Anita, and this time she’s not actually working in the fashion industry like she was in the John Hughes film (I don’t think they ever made it clear what Anita’s job was in the animated film). She’s now a high society photographer for a publication, and for some reason they actually called her ‘Anita Darling’ which, again, I haven’t read the book but I’m fairly convinced wasn’t actually her name in the book but just part of Cruella’s greeting—her first line is, “Anita, darling!” I don’t think she’s actually stating her full name.
Roger doesn’t get much to do in this one. He starts out as a lawyer for the Baroness who’s fired partway through the film as he’s basically telling the Baroness that they don’t have much legal action to take against Cruella and what she gets up to throughout most of the film, and they do tie it back briefly to his musician job on the side, but again he doesn’t really do much in the film. We do hear him play the classic song at one point during the film, and I suppose it’s nice to add a bit of extra context on why he doesn’t like Cruella, but Anita out of the original characters from the original film plays more of a role than he does. He’s played by Kayvan Novak from Fonejacker and does fine in the role, but for a guy who can transform himself almost effortlessly I would like to see Disney do a bit more with him in the future if they plan to cast him again.
Okay, now before I tear up this film any more, I would say there is something I like about the film: the costume design. That was one of the things they really had to nail for the film and the staff are doing a phenomenal job. When the next Oscars come around this had better be up for Best Costume Design as well as Best Hair and Makeup. Now to another one of biggest problems with Cruella: it feels very cynical in a sense, or at least it left me with a sense of cynicism. It’s very clearly a corporate cash grab and it completely feels like it. Partway through they kind of abandon this being a Cruella origin film and, as Angry Joe put it in his review—which you completely should watch by the way— by the end it’s almost a different character and they just make token references to what she could become. Even Jasper and Horace feel a little off at points. (That being said, I’m an Arsenal fan so seeing them be Tottenham supporters was a bit cathartic since they’re eventually going to become bad guys. I will not apologise for that low blow; feel free to fire one back.) That was my big problem with Cruella: the film feels very disjointed and it doesn’t feel very interesting in exploring its main character and getting her to the role she will become in a future story. And there is a post-credits scene that suggests that we might be getting a future adaptation of 101 Dalmatians. But they want you to go into that film not believing Cruella is the worst thing imaginable when I absolutely should. They made the biggest mistake trying to make her too sympathetic, and as a result I like the character a lot less.
It doesn’t help the fact that I don’t think Disney even really knew what kind of film they wanted to have and so they just threw every single film in there. As a result, I’d say Cruella is a very poorly executed film. There are parts of it that actually kind of work, hence why I don’t think it’s the worst of these recent Disney live-action films based on their old properties. I’d actually even say it’s probably better than Maleficent since it doesn’t completely drain everything from the characters that we liked like that film did, and it’s certainly not like the Beauty and the Beast and Lion King remakes which both have absolutely no reason to exist. But I can’t say I like this film as it feels confused and doesn’t really nail what it wants to nail. For example, they come up with a motivation for Cruella early on but then almost completely abandon it partway through. The first one has been joked and memed the hell out of since the film hit theatres and Disney Plus, but I don’t think that tells half the story. And by the way, when we said that was going to be Cruella’s motivation when we were talking about the film before the first trailers came out, we were joking! We didn’t actually want you to write that!
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