Cruella has a pretty big burden on its shoulders. The whole “sympathetic villain” prequel treatment is hardly new territory, even for Disney, but we’re talking about Cruella de Vil here. She didn’t just steal a mermaid’s voice or crash a fancy christening party to lay out an unholy curse on a newborn: she’s the lady who kidnapped a bunch of puppies to murder, skin, and make into a coat. So you see the difficulty in terms of image rehabilitation. For his part, director Craig Gillespie tries to put a new spin on the famous dog murderer, and the result is a wild, frenetic ode to 70s punk, one that has plenty of style but never seems to decide exactly who it’s for.
As we meet the young Cruella (then Estella), she’s a young whippersnapper who is mostly well-intentioned but, even as a child, has a keen interest in fashion and a tendency to fly off the handle. (The ever diplomatic Anita Darling refers to it as “going to extremes.”) After her mother dies unexpectedly, she joins forces with small-time thieves Horace and Jasper, the three of whom spend their childhoods robbing London blind. But as an adult (now played by Emma Stone), Estella feels a keen longing to fulfill her dreams and become a fashion designer, working under the highly critical eye of the Baroness (Emma Thompson.)
This Estella is likable, even if the voiceover narration may be a little over the top. She’s clever, inventive, and has a flair for the dramatic that works well in a Disney picture as visually bold as this. Her dynamic with Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) is unexpectedly endearing, although the trajectory their relationship will ultimately take from childhood accomplices and confidants to subservient lackeys is a little depressing. Emma Stone does a lovely job of building the connective tissue of the character that allows us to see how Estella could conceivably go from where she starts in Cruella to where she ends up in 101 Dalmatians.
There’s little to criticize in terms of visual style here as well. The decision to base the entire storyline in the fashion world of 1970s London somehow makes perfect sense. Both the set design and the costuming are lush interpretations of the burgeoning punk movement. Cruella represents a daring new voice in fashion, and her creations reflect her penchant for drama and excess. So that element of the film works very well. But at the same time, it raises the question: who is Cruella for?
It’s hard to imagine small children, presumably Disney’s target demographic for these live-action spin-offs of animated classics, being enthralled by The Devil Wears Prada-inspired showdown between rival fashion designers. Indeed, from the characterization to the sense of humor to the major plot elements, none of it seems particularly geared towards children. But it also doesn’t go far enough to completely win over adult audiences. It’s rated PG-13, presumably for violence and general themes, which points to a willingness to go darker than your traditional Disney fare, but no one quite dares to pull the trigger. As it is, it’s stuck in a sort of limbo, unable to completely appeal to either demographic.
It also suffers from the rare issue of having too much money in its music budget for its own good. Practically every other scene features a needle drop with a pop/punk classic, regardless of whether or not the music actually adds to what’s happening on screen. More often than not, it only serves as a distraction. Excess may be Cruella’s raison d’être, but here it definitely seems that a little restraint would have gone a long way.
But other than that, Cruella holds up reasonably well. A few utterly laughable plot elements succeed in making Cruella’s origin story more ridiculous than poignant, and there is absolutely no reason that this movie ever needed to even approach the two-hour mark. Still, its visual panache keeps it entertaining at least, and a committed performance from Emma Stone goes a long way in giving the much-maligned Disney villain some sympathy. (Although it has to be said: the decision to actually feature the song “Sympathy for the Devil” is so on the nose that it’s borderline unforgivable.) Cruella makes the best of what was always going to be a tough assignment; it’s far from the disaster some may have been anticipating, but aside from the production design, it never reaches any particularly dizzying heights.