Genre: Crime Comedy and Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 14 min.
Release Date: May 28th, 2021 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Craig Gillespie Actors: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong, John McCrea, Emily Beecham, Kayvan Novak, Kirby Howell-Baptiste
rom the very beginning, I’ve always made a statement.” At birth, little Estella has black-and-white hair, separated straight down the middle – something of an omen concerning her mischievous alter ego, “Cruella,” who must be suppressed in order to blend in with other children. It doesn’t always help, however, as the youngster remains in perpetual trouble with authority figures, unable to avoid fights with her peers. After a simultaneous withdrawal and expulsion from school, Estella’s mother takes her to Hellman Hall, where an old friend might offer financial aid before they set off on a new path. But during a lavish party, Estella has an unfortunate run-in with attack-dalmatians, resulting in her mother’s death, prompting the little lass to flee into the night.
Now an orphan and a runaway in ’60s London, Estella finds unlikely partnership with petty thieves Jasper and Horace, forming a three-child gang. Ten years later, they’re still expert purse-snatchers and pickpockets, though their gig has evolved into something far more elaborate, with Estella (Emma Stone) designing intricate costumes to infiltrate various establishments with adult co-heisters Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). In time, Estella graduates to a legitimate profession at the exquisitely high-class Liberty of London store – even if she starts at the very bottom as a janitor. At least it’s a foot in the door to becoming a fashion designer … or an evil genius.
As with “Maleficent” before it, “Cruella” asks audiences to wonder what happened in a fairy tale villain’s upbringing to shape them into a murderous monster. Oftentimes, the antagonists are more complex and engaging than the stock princesses that compose collections of protagonists in Disney’s feature-length cartoons, but it’s nevertheless a stretch to build an entire picture (and here, one running over two hours) around someone who will eventually have an insatiable appetite for bashing and skinning puppies – or, as was done with Maleficent, Estella must be redefined as a misunderstood outcast who doesn’t actually harm anyone, despite the skin-crawling legends. In this effort, Estella’s transformation into Cruella feels like a cross between “The Devil Wears Prada” and a season of “Project Runway”; who would have guessed that the chain-smoking, reckless-driving, fur-loving psychopath would have such humble, human origins?
“Look around, Cinderella.” To build up a personality and motives, Estella meets various acquaintances, including the esteemed designer known only as the Baroness (Emma Thompson); anachronistically-adorned shop clerk Artie (John McCrea); unconvincingly unassuming valet John (Mark Strong); and, of course, Roger (Kayvan Novak) and Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Interactions and conflicts with these supporting roles actually turn Estella into the heroine, which she needs to be in order for the story to work; in the same way that Harley Quinn must be a sympathetic character to helm her own series, Cruella possesses a wealth of underdog traits. And it helps that there’s a villain here that surpasses Cruella’s own vengefulness and thirst for bloodshed (essentially, there’s already another Cruella offshoot, so that Estella doesn’t have to be irredeemably heinous). “Everyone else is an obstacle.”
Plenty of humor snakes its way into the premise, but its effectiveness rests somewhere in the 50% range (in lesser moments, it reminds of “Zoolander”); rarely is it of the laugh-out-loud variety. References to the original Disney classic (including a couple of specific scene recreations) are intermittently amusing, but the abundance of CG dogs and kids, as well as unexplained skills (since when was Cruella proficient in martial arts, and Jasper and Horace keen rock musicians?), disrupt the typical suspension of disbelief. Additionally, Estella’s Clark Kent-like gimmick is too derivative and unconvincing for the light realism – making the sequences of total fantasy just as incompatible. For all this to have been truly congruous, it needed to have gone further in its ghoulishness (it’s already terribly close to a work by Tim Burton) or dialed it back to the realm of over-the-top goofiness. Fortunately, Emma Stone is the right actress for the role, managing to make the character her own, regularly redesigning it into something beyond the highly memorable cartoon character from 1961. In fact, “Cruella” is most enjoyable when entirely distanced from its source material.
– Mike Massie