Cruella, like Maleficent, gives a female baddie an origin story, and ends up in the same cul-de-sac, trying to insist that this is one of the female baddies for the ages, while also asking us also to sympathise with a poor Disney dear who’s been badly treated. 101 dogs’ breakfasts is the result.
Since Emma Stone is one of the film’s producers (as is former Cruella De Vil Glenn Close, interestingly), she is partly to blame for this boring, messy film. Which is a pity because that wonky smile and arched eyebrow suit her magnificently for the role of Cruella, the girl born Estella who, after her mother is killed by Dalmatians, grows up in London with two street urchins, before eventually, somehow, turning her natural gift for fashion into a job with London’s premiere designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). The Baroness, another brilliant fashion talent, all Audrey Hepburn poses (but with none of the humanitarian instincts), is also the owner of a clutch of Dalmatians. There are dots to be joined here, and not the ones on the dogs coats.
In a nature/nurture tussle coming down on the side of nature, it turns out that clever and lovely Estella has a wicked alter ego. Enter Cruella, and in the film’s best sequences, a series of this-time-it’s-personal showdowns between her and the Baroness, Estella still hanging on to her day job, incognito, while at night-time terrorising every social event the Baroness attends by making one massively grand entrance after another as Cruella.
An Oliver Twist story about Estella’s life in gorblimey London with pickpockets Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) has become a variant on The Devil Wears Prada (its writer, Aline Brosh McKenna, had an early hand), before morphing again into a Skywalker/Vader face-off, with fashion statements rather than light sabres as weapons. Cruella continues this nervous shuffling, not sure which story it wants to tell, right to the end.
Like Maleficent, Cruella also worries about what to do with a horrible person as the focus of the story. Can we “understand” them and still boo and hiss every time they appear on screen? Every bit of backstory, every humanising gesture, every normal relationship that the baddie is seen to have depletes them as a fount of all evil. Are they, then, to be portrayed as a goodie? Talk about the horns (in Maleficent’s case, literally) of a dilemma.
Cruella is a 1960s Disney movie in most respects. Characters are big and, on the whole, unambiguous. Craig Gillespie’s solid wide-screen direction is in the same vein. The acting is declamatory rather than nuanced. You can imagine Dick Van Dyke or David Tomlinson slotting right in. Panto for all the family.
One mystery is the incredibly poor use of music, a boomer jukebox of pop tunes justified by the 1960s/70s (Cruella isn’t sure which) setting, but which serve no real other purpose. Supertramp seem as out of place as the Zombies, the Doors, Nina Simone or Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, all of them arriving on the soundtrack seemingly out of nowhere only to be yanked off halfway through the song, only to be replaced by Ike and Tina Turner, Suzi Quatro, Queen or The Clash. At one point, a chaotic heist sequence involving rats scurrying about a grand ballroom and fashion darlings scattering and screaming, is soundtracked to ELO’s It’s a Living Thing. It’s a mid-tempo chugger. Makes no sense.
Some things, though, are perfect. The cast – Stone and Thompson, Fry and Hauser, John McCrea as a very fey fashionista and Cruella co-conspirator, Mark Strong as the valet with the key to Cruella/Estella’s past – could not be improved on. Jenny Beavan’s punk-inflected designs for Cruella’s creations (she also worked on Mad Max: Fury Road) are as showstopping as they’re meant to be.
Music to one side, there’s really nothing wrong with this film that a decent story wouldn’t fix. It’s all a bit fur coat and no knickers.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021