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Cruella Review

May 28, 2021 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Cruella
4
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Cruella Review  

Directed By: Craig Gillespie
Written By: Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis; Based on Disney’s 101 Dalmations by Bill Peet and The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith
Runtime: 134 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements

Emma Stone – Estella/Cruella
Emma Thompson – The Baroness von Hellman
Joel Fry – Jasper
Paul Walter Hauser – Horace
Mark Strong – John the Valet
Emily Beecham – Catherine
John McCrea – Artie
Kirby Howell-Baptiste – Anita Darling
Kayvan Novak – Roger
Tom Turner – The Baron von Hellman

Cruella is Disney’s latest attempt at exploiting the studio’s library of animated classics in the live-action format. Here, the focus is a reimagining of 101 Dalmations‘ iconic villainess Cruella de Vil. However, no longer is Cruella the greedy, vain, petty, odious, repulsive and abusive aristocrat who is obsessed with fur and mistreats animals. She’s now an orphaned anti-hero on a quest for revenge against the woman who wronged her. Cruella becomes a fashionista vigilante with a punk-rock attitude.

Craig Gillespie’s take on Cruella de Vil is not the backstory for any existing version of the character. This is not the origin of the live-action version portrayed by Glenn Close, or Betty Lou Gerson’s version from the 1961 animated classic. It’s a top-to-bottom reimagining of the character. In past adaptations, Cruella has had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. As portrayed by Emma Stone, Disney’s new live-action version of Cruella has been bleached and shed of her amoral qualities and malicious center.

From a young age, Estella’s mean streak is characterized as a rebellious nature toward uptight authority figures and using extreme measures to take revenge against bullies. One incident too many gets Estella expelled, and she and her poor mother, Catherine (Beecham), are forced to relocate to London. Unfortunately, a visit to a lavish fashion party at Hellman Hall that Cruella sneaks into ends in disaster and leaves Estella an orphan. She inexplicably finds her way to London where she falls in with local smalltime crooks Horace and Jasper. Together they form a makeshift family unit and run two-bit thievery and cons over the years. Now adults, Jasper (Fry) and Horace (Hauser) encourage Estella to follow her dreams of becoming a designer as she’s destined for greater things.

Eventually, Estella’s creativity gains the recognition of one Baroness von Hellman, who virtually runs the world of haute couture in London. Ultimately, Estella finds her way into the Baroness’ inner circle. A connection to Cruella’s past puts her on a path of revenge to bring the Baroness down, so Cruella channels her naughty side into that of the fashion world’s wild card, Cruella. As Cruella, Estella makes a show of upstaging Baroness’ clothing line debuts, taking part in raucous displays of fashion-themed performance art. However, the cruel and ruthless Baroness is not one to have her spotlight stolen and is determined to crush her new fashion rival.

Cruella‘s strongest attribute is undoubtedly Emma Stone’s charismatic performance. She wears some stunning costumes and has impressive presence here. Director Craig Gillespie does well in allowing Emma Stone take center stage and letting her go wild. Much like the film, Stone’s performance is infused with a British punk rock attitude that, at times, is fun and exciting to watch.

Unfortunately, while Cruella certainly looks lavish and stylish, the substance of this story is lacking and is not justified for an overly-long cinematic experience. Now that Cruella, Horace and Jasper have been reimagined as the heroes of this story, they are lacking in the more unsavory qualities that would potentially find them at odds with the audience. In turn, that makes the central trio rather boring.

For example, Estella adopts a stray dog she names buddy. Horace has a one-eyed pet chihuahua named Wink, who partners up with the group on their heists. Horace is completely devoted to his friend Wink and dotes on him like a son. They might be con artists and thieves, but deep down, this trio has hearts of gold. Any hint of nastiness from Estella is half-hearted, or part of her character arc in learning to trust her true friends and “family.”

This version of Cruella is only “bad” in a very loose sense. Jasper acts as the moral center and conscience for Cruella throughout the movie; and well, it’s all rather revolting. The meanest act Cruella commits is when she wrongly snaps at poor Jasper and Horace after she becomes too invested in her quest for vengeance. A “good” Cruella de Vil, who acts as the hero of the story, one who has to learn her moralistic lesson like a typical Disney protagonist, is boring. These characters simply do not work as the ā€œgood guys.ā€ They are not interesting or compelling heroes.

Director Craig Gillespie and his fleet of five writers simply could not come up with a compelling idea for why there needs to be a nearly two hour and fifteen minute story of a golden hearted Cruella, Jasper and Horace getting back at a loathsome fashion designer. Even multiple connections made to the animated Disney version of One Hundred and One Dalmations are rather forced and pointless. Emma Stone’s performance does make this at least marginally more entertaining than the awful Maleficent films, but the story does not fare much better.

Once the narrative makes it clear this is a brand-new Cruella, virtually indecipherable from any past takes, it’s hard to stay invested in this story. At the very least, Maleficent operates under the premise that it’s the “true story” behind the legend of Sleeping Beauty. Cruella offers no such premise. There’s little justification to root for Cruella, Horance and Jasper now, other than the fact that they are the underdogs getting back at a rich, bourgeois aristocrat, who is the true villainess of the story.

The film’s only other bright spot is Emma Thompson, who interestingly enough, shares more qualities with Cruella de Vil than this movie’s own version of Cruella. Even a talented actor such as Mark Strong, who plays a thankless role as the Baroness’ butler John in this film, looks rather bored, as if he’s simply going through the motions.

Despite some minor, superficial visual similarities, this is Cruella in name only.

4.0
The final score: review Poor
The 411
Despite a strong effort from Emma Stone, Cruella does little to justify meaning from this story in trying to turn irredeemable Disney villains into well-meaning, dog-loving, underdog antiheroes. Sure, Cruella de Vil is a fun, iconic character. But what's the point of making her the "good guy?" Also, while Emma Stone's performance is charismatic, she comes off as a reasonable daughter of an evil and wicked Cruella, rather than Cruella de Vil herself.
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