Cruella is yet another attempt by Disney to revive one of their properties. In recent years, the attempts have been pretty blatant. There are a few good ones- Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, and, whilst I’m in the minority, Tim Burton’s Dumbo. Each of those films at least brought something interesting to the table. Yet a lot of them, like The Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan, Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland, etc., just feel sort of soulless and unnecessary. Cruella, the newest film from director Craig Gillespie (the great I,Tonya) brings us a film with, dare I say it, personality. The film is flawed and uneven, with some elements working really well, others not so much, and some that need a touch of improvement, but also, it doesn’t give off such a corporate vibe. This feels like a film with passion put into it (and, shoot, fashion too), and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t mostly work.
Does Cruella DeVil need an origin story? Eh, maybe not. But, what exactly is her beef with those dastardly Dalmatians? Well, the answer to that is answered pretty suddenly, and shockingly (I won’t lie, it elicited a chuckle too) into Cruella, though I will admit that the film does go kind of the Maleficent route, if you catch my drift… but also, it’s done here well enough to where, eh, you might not care. As an origin story, this did thoroughly keep my attention and for a film geared towards families, it often doesn’t feel like one. Which again, gives the film personality. Yet think of what could’ve been done had Gillespie gone all the way with his PG-13 rating- if he had gone all the way with the wickedness. Still, in the hands of The Two Emma’s, the wickedness is often a delight.
The two Emma’s in question are Emma Stone, in the title role, and Emma Thompson as The Baroness, her fashion designer nemesis. Stone is obviously having a ball here, sporting those wild outfits, that wonderfully ludicrous hair, and of course, the concept of playing a live-action cartoon (Glenn Close, as you may remember, was a hoot in the 90’s rendition). Yet the deeper you get into the film, the more you find yourself impressed by just what an actress Stone has really turned out to be. Then there’s Thompson, who is essentially a hybrid of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock and Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly… but she’s utterly insane. And a fabulous blast to watch.
Before I yack on about what works about the movie, I should probably start yacking about the plot. Trust me, there is a lot of it- perhaps too much. Cruella opens with her birth (birthname is Estella, with the name “Cruella” being a name used by her mother to refer to Estella’s occasional temper), and yes, she is born with black and white hair. We then see her as a little girl in 1960’s England, getting bullied in school, yet also fighting back. Then her life is turned completely upside down whenever tragedy strikes, and she is forced to live on the streets. Not alone though, as she meets Jasper and Horace, who are also fellow orphans. Cut to probably 10 years later, in the 1970’s, and Estella (now played by Stone), Jasper (now played by Joel Fry) and Horace (now played by Paul Walter Hauser) are adults, carrying on with their business of living in a shack and pick-pocketing.
Estella nabs a job as a fashion boutique… scrubbing toilets. Yet she still holds onto her childhood passion of fashion design, and said designs catch the eye of the legendary Baroness (Thompson), who is THEE fashion icon of London. Estella is initially star-struck, yet soon past trauma resurfaces, and soon Estella finds herself prepping an all-out fashion war against the Baroness. Said rivalry brings out Estella’s alter-ego, Cruella, and the deeper we get into the rivalry, the more we see of the character we know… well, sort of.
This is a more successful film than Maleficent, in terms of their treatment of the character, IF ONLY because they don’t totally re-write the character and the story before our eyes. While some of Cruella’s backstory might be a little wobbly, there is still enough establishment to where they get away with it. Cruella, as a movie, is good… enough. I recommend the film for the merits that it has to offer, and the strengths outweigh the weaknesses… yet there were a lot of opinions flowing through my little brain during the experience, and they were all over the place.
The film is about 20 minutes too long. Having said that, this is a lot of movie- it’s an origin story, it’s a revenge movie, it’s a heist movie, it’s a fashion movie. There is a lot going on here, and most of it works, even if it can be a little much. Also, while the film does have humor, it could’ve used a bit more. To counter that though, Gillespie and Co. are going for some pretty dark territory though. Then there’s the movie as a whole, which had my interest, then had stretches that could’ve been improved, then regained my interest. It’s all over the place, but when it dances close to being a miss, Cruella always pulled me back in.
I love a sequence early into the film which follows Estella’s current place of business, set to “Time of the Season” (which, by the way, the soundtrack in this film is next level, even if it does come close to exhausting a few times).There are also a few tricks up the film’s sleeve that honestly do pay off well. The performances are hugely enjoyable, in that everyone is having a grand ole time playing cartoons. Yet, in my eyes, the reason to see this film, as dumb as this is going to sound, is for its look.
Not the visual effects, necessarily. There is CGI here, and while some of it looks okay, other scenes… not so much (there is an image of someone parachuting and landing in water, and for a movie that looks as expensive as this, it’s pretty laughable). But no, I’m talking about the costume and production design. Yeah I know, another gay guy talking about fashion, but I mean… this thing, this movie… it’s got real style. Gillespie ain’t no dummy; the guy has pizazz out the wazoo. Yet the film’s costume and production design are very… man, Reynolds Woodcock would cringe at this, but they’re very chique. This film looks so fabulous that if two time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan doesn’t win a third Oscar for Costume Design, the winner had damn well better be… well, better.
Usually, when discussing these live-action Disney updates, I only choose to recognize the ones that made an impression. The Jungle Book was, by far, the best one. Cruella isn’t totally successful, but its successes to make it worth seeing. They also make the film just successful enough to be discussed fondly. Which is certainly more than can be said about The Lion King.