Disney’s latest live-action reimagining is fun enough but suffers from an identity crisis.
Author: Riley Humphrey
Movies like “Cruella” live or die on their style, and what a strange style “Cruella” has: not bold or shocking, but gangly and mismatched.
The pseudo-prequel to Disney’s 1961 animated film “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” follows Estella (Emma Stone), a young thief and aspiring fashion designer living in 1970s London. She begins working for the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a notorious fashion icon, setting her on the path to becoming the criminal Cruella de Vil.
Like its main character, the movie has two halves that it can’t reconcile. One side wants to be a ’90s live-action Disney movie, with CG dogs, slapstick fights and wacky supporting characters. This is where the movie spends roughly 80% of its time — inoffensive but clunky. The other side wants to be a campy, dark, fashion/heist/rebellion movie, an ambitious mashup of Tim Burton and the witty fashion movies of the 2000s. This is the more disappointing of the two halves, and the sum of its wasted potential. For all the weirdness or darkness it touches in its best moments, those bits end up too short or gimmicky.
Its chief weaknesses are the writing and editing. The story opens strong but can’t maintain its irreverent tone. There are several murky subplots that get dropped at random while it busies itself sewing other movies together into truncated sections. “The Devil Wears Prada” bits are burned off halfway through, while the rest of the movie is spent trying to riff “Ocean’s Eleven.” Many of the lines try to be sharp or campy but bounce off harmlessly. It’s a testament to the actors that it’s never unbearable and instead just childish.
Thompson is great. She might be recycling mannerisms from other characters, but she does them well and threatens to will the whole production into working. They allow her character to be a real villain, with some unexpected mystery and sympathetic motivations folded in. Most of the positive parts of the movie can be tied back to her.
Stone is a fine lead, and her character is fine. Getting the director of “I, Tonya” to make her seem sympathetic was a no-brainer. However, the movie also wants Cruella to be a wildcard that’s leaning toward evil. Not only is she not, she never comes close. There are some plot points that seem to point toward her character turning, but these are immediately (and confusingly) reversed within the same scenes.
The movie also seems overbudgeted for what it is. There are some good costumes and production design, but 200 million dollars’ worth? There are also a truly bizarre number of needle drops. I could swear there were three per scene, many of them needless or on the nose. Even the aesthetics — one of the main reasons to make this sort of movie — are spread too thin. It wants to cover high fashion, camp, punk, glam and more. Instead, it comes off as the Target T-shirt versions of them all, with a few songs and outfits per movement.
The third act is the best, as the movie finally gets some color in its cheeks. The goofier and darker bits from the first two acts finally congeal, and the main plot gets weird, silly and dumb enough to start working as directed. This is the closest it gets to the campiness it desperately wanted to tap into.
There’s nothing wrong with making a movie for families, but the movie aims for young-adult rebellion and ends up making a mess. “Cruella” is kind of fun, but it could have been far more interesting, and its best moments only suggest the mischief of better movies.
“Cruella” is now playing in select theaters and available for rental on Disney+.