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CRUELLA (2021) review

May 29, 2021


written by: Dana Fox and Tony McNamara
produced by: Andrew Gunn, Marc Platt, and Kristin Burr
directed by: Chris Gillespie
rated: PG-13 (for some violence and thematic elements)
runtime: 134 min.
U.S. release date: May 28, 2021 (theatrical and Disney+ premiere)


It’s hard to just sit through some movies and not wonder who it was made for. Disney’s “Cruella” is one such a movie. While more akin to the spinoff that the studio’s “Maleficent” movies (yes, there were two of those) were, as opposed to the slew of live-action re-imaginings of classic Disney animated features which started with 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland”, there’s still this feeling of how unnecessary it all is. It’s highly doubtful that anyone who watched Disney’s 1961’s “One Hundred and One Dalmations” ever wondered what the wretched and psychotic Cruella de Vil was like in her younger years. She’s so loud and large that such an iteration was all we could think about. No one pondered what damaged this brash and obnoxious character in her younger years, but here we are.

“Cruella” opens in 1965 England, when we meet Estela (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), a precocious 12-year-old mischievous girl who often exacerbates her poor and loving mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), as she struggles to pursue a career in fashion design. The girl is born with black-and-white hair that has a definitive part down the middle (for the sole reason of connecting her to the eventual look of the Disney antagonist, which is kind of an obvious and lazy choice) and she winds up being made fun of by grammar school boys, leaving her with only two friends, Anita (Florisa Kamara) and her adorable dog, Buddy.



There’s a rash and angry side to Estela that Catherine names Cruella, encouraging her in a playful manner to keep that side of her at bay. It’s an interesting way to establish how a certain level of cruelty had developed for this iconic Disney villainess at a young age and it’s also relatable to viewers (parents in particular) considering we all have a side to keep under control.

On one pivotal night that will shape the young girl for the rest of her life, Estela witnesses her mother suddenly killed by charging dalmations. Orphaned and left to fend for herself on the bustling streets of London (along with Buddy), Estela is befriended and taken in by the likes of two street smart criminals her age, Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph McDonald), finding kindred spirits who understand each other and also live on the street. They become a functional and fluid grifting trio, plotting out the right angle for their next grifting job.

Fast-forward to the mid-70s and the three thieves have now developed into a seamless operating machine, with Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) doing most of the heavy lifting, while Estela (Emma Stone) distracts her way into situations in an effortless manner, while nursing her love for fashion design. Estela daydreams of working at Liberty, an elite British (actually based on the real-life luxury department store in London founded in 1875) house run by The Baroness (Emma Thompson), the egotistical top designer in London. With help from Jasper, Estela winds up getting a job at Liberty, where she goes from scrubbing toilets to becoming a member of the creative team with dreams of surpassing the fame of her ice queen boss.



There are many differences between the characters played by the two Emmas, but the main obvious one is their economic and social status. This factors into how Estela is certainly more determined and driven to usurp her employer/rival than The Baroness is bothered with acknowledging who Estela is. Besides coming up with some attention-grabbing window displays and unique designs, Estela captures the attention of The Baroness and the fashion scene by fully embracing her Cruella persona with a punk rock/avante garde presence that opposes the establishment The Baroness has led for so long. The Baroness is indeed impressed the bold freshness that Estela/Cruella presents, but she’s not about to be pushed aside and exhibits her own cruelty in dealing with this young uprising threat.

In one of too many “small world” coincidences, Estela’s childhood friend, Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), becomes a journalist for a local London paper and winds up covering the rise of Cruella (and inevitably recognizing her true identity). Another coincidence is how The Baroness has a lawyer on a tight leash named Roger (Kayvan Novak, mostly known for his great work in “What We Do in the Shadows”), who will be seen working out a familiar tune on the piano in an end credit scene as his dalmation watches. These are really only glaring coincidences for viewers who are well acquainted with all the previous iterations of Dodie Smith’s 1956 children’s novel, in which Anita and Roger Darling typically get together in a meet-cute thanks to their adorable dalmations. It’s nothing new for origin stories to feel obligated to check off all these “ah-ha” moments and shoehorn them in, but it all adds up to the overall unnecessary story being told.



“Cruella” is directed by Craig Gillespie, the “I, Tonya” director who’s no stranger to the House of Mouse having helmed the studio’s “Million Dollar Arm” from 2014 and apart from some slick cinematography moments from Nicolas Karakatsanis (also responsible for some incredible camerawork in “I, Tonya”) and standout costume design from Oscar winner Jenny Beaven (“Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The King’s Speech”), there’s nothing that really sets this apart from so many other live-action Disney re-imaginings. There’s an eye-catching tracking shot that travels through Liberty when that takes us through the front doors, zipping in and around rooms, down stairs until we land on Estella cleaning a grungy bathroom in a lower level. It’s one of handful of cool shots from Katakatsanis, but truly the amount of intricate and extravagant costumes will be what viewers will really take away from their viewing experience. However, some cool shots and fancy costumes, does not make a good movie.



Sure, both Emmas are great here, but it’s easy to think how they (and much of the cast) wind up rising above the mediocre screenplay. There’s a big reveal that’s so obvious it’s actually laughable how they tried to make it a “wow moment”. Fry and Hauser, as Jasper and Horace respectively, are quite wonderful, offering more layers and charm to their characters than I would’ve ever thought possible. I actually wound up wanting to see more of them than I did of Cruella and that’s not to knock Stone, but it’s more indicative of what the screenwriters are doing with the character. They aren’t the only ones I would’ve like to have seen more of. Mark Strong plays a valet to The Baroness, who plays a pivotal role in the past, present, and future of the titular character, but apart from some knowing glances and quippy lines, we don’t learn too much about him.

One unfortunately cloying element to “Cruella” are the way in which songs are used in the most heavy-handed and obnoxious ways. It’s fine to use songs by the likes of Supertramp, Electric Light Orchestra, Blondie and The Clash, but it doesn’t have to be the same exact songs used over and over again in other movies. Some songs, like The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” are so one-the-nose, it’s ridiculous and insulting. Apart from the overused songs, there’s ones that are totally out of place, like when Estella walks into a boutique shop run by the flamboyant Artie (John McCrea) and “Car Wash” by American soul and R&B band Rose Royce can be heard. It makes no sense whatsoever, considering a) no one is washing a car and b) it was a Disco hit from a 1976 American movie, which finds it wholly out of place here.



On that note, back to who this movie is for though. Often times, songwriter’s write for themselves and artist’s are less concerned with how viewers will perceive the paintings they toil over. They do it for themselves. So, along those lines, it’s hard to believe that Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, a couple of screenwriters who separately co-wrote the likes of “Isn’t It Romantic” and “The Favourite” respectively, were clamoring to write an origin story for old Cruella de Vil. Don’t tell me the screenwriters (or the director for that matter) have been clamoring to tell a Cruella origin story for the longest time. It’s not until that Disney cha-ching can be heard that talent gathers to make something like this happen, instead of possibly creating something new, unique, and unrelated to the studio’s history. So many of these songs are linked to back-to-back montages and about half of them could’ve easily been edited out to cut back the bloated runtime.

Fox and McNamara really drop the ball after the “big reveal” comes, which finds Estela/Cruella taking a sharp turn that feels rushed and honestly hard to root for. What’s that? She’s a villain? That doesn’t mean we can’t get behind the character. But, her behavior here feels forced to move her forward into her future villainy. There’s an opportunity here for Estela to choose to course-correct who she truly wants to be and who she feels destined to turn into, which could’ve been an interesting subversion, but who am I kidding?

“Cruella” tries being gritty and fun (an unlikely combination) and in turn becomes something grim and morose and downright mean to this PG-13 affair. Outside of some noteworthy production values and technical achievements, this is Disney truly stretching to make a formulaic reworking of a classic baddie into family entertainment. Sometimes villains should just be left alone, remaining the evil character we love to hate – in this case, one that would eventually become a maniacal madwoman known for her nasty smoking habit, fur fetish and hatred for dalmations.






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