It was only at his last moments that Cruella is really starting to look like a live-action Disney movie. What we do in the shadows Star Kayvan Novak sits in front of a piano in her seedy apartment, the camera pulling back to reveal a charming mix of twisted London skyline as he sings, “Cruella de Vil, Cruella de Vil, if she doesn’t scare you, no bad thing will,” to the Dalmatian who arrived at his door that morning. So far, any real connection between Cruella and 101 Dalmatiens –including a fondness for dog fur coats – has been missing. Craig Gillespie’s origin story of Cruella is an underdog, iconoclast and trailblazer, with intense mom issues and a sense of pride in being both “bright and bad”. What she isn’t is a puppy killer.
Square the glamor of the character with the well-documented public dislike of animal cruelty (see: the long-standing website Does the dog die?) is the project for this decadent mid-1970s Dickensian fashion show. The five-person screenwriting team of the film, which includes both co-creator of Crazy ex girlfriend and an Oscar winner of The favors“It’s about rehabilitating the image of Cruella de Vil, first through the most ridiculous auto-mythology since we found out how Han Solo got his last name. This is arguably a spoiler, so we’ll skip the details, but hopefully the prequel’s Cruella has a reason to dislike Dalmatians, which is sure to produce a hearty growl from all viewers, except the most gullible. Above all, however, Cruella ignore evil in favor of brilliance, a nicer form of revisionism.
The plot runs through Oliver Twist with The devil wears Prada, starting with the exact moment of Cruella’s birth and going through a childhood marred by tragedy and redeemed by the kindness of two pickpockets, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). Eventually, the duo will be relegated to the role of clumsy henchmen. But they are like the brothers of the girl initially known as Estella (Emma Stone), land her a job at an exclusive department store and encourage her to fulfill her dream of becoming a fashion designer. Although she started out as a janitor, Estella quickly caught the attention of the imperious Baroness (Emma Thompson), London’s fashion queen. The Baroness, it hardly needs to be said, is both utterly fabulous and utterly rotten – a cruel and mean boss who shamelessly takes credit for the creative work of others. This latest character flaw is what leads Estella to remake herself as Cruella de Vil, an unfathomable fashion terrorist whose mission is to outdo the Baroness whenever possible.
Fortunately, the first word that Cruella would be about the “birth of punk” was overkill. Although Estella / Cruella’s designs incorporate safety pins, black leather and the aesthetics of collage synonymous with the Sex Pistols, the fantasy version of the London film is a decades-long hodgepodge of cultural meanings: you’ve got mid-century couture snobs, soot-stained Victorian orphans, androgynous glam rockers, a little dose of ’60s swinging London, and, yes, an undercurrent of proto-punk that comes to the surface when Cruella and his minions stage an impromptu performance of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (understood?) With Cruella at the singing in what appears be a Dalmatian fur coat.
No, there is no scene of Cruella de Vil walking through Camden Town like Joaquin Phoenix at the end of Joker. More there is still something to roll our eyes. Gillespie also directed Me, Tonya, whose style our own AA Dowd has described as the “Scorsese diet”. And those same impulses are present here, for a film that’s heavy on Steadicam shots – at first the camera goes through a large store before landing on Estella, scrubbing the basement floors – and the needles drop. There is 37 airs pop sprinkled everywhere Cruella, culminating in the most obvious song you can think of for a character whose last name is Vil and for whom we feel sympathy. The soundtrack includes The Zombies, Nancy Sinatra, David Bowie, The Clash, ELO, Rose Royce, Blondie, Doris Day, Suzi Quatro, Nina Simone and Deep Purple, all tastefully chosen but not particularly revealing. Many of these songs have been used in other films, for example, and few are cuts deep enough to generate much excitement among adult music lovers.
The tracklist would, however, make a good introductory popular music course from around 1966 to 1981 for a curious youngster, which begs the question of who this movie really is. for. Cruella is PG-13, with dark themes and a main character who refuses to rule out murder when asked directly about his methods. And at 134 minutes, that’s too long to hold the attention of young children anyway. Yet it also includes family-friendly cartoon touches, such as the lovable Dachshund sidekick who helps Cruella and his company pull off a series of relatively harmless, if not entirely morally justified, heists. The decor of the fashion world and the campy performances of its female chefs suggest an arched approach to the material – “Isn’t that all?” deliciously nasty? He asks – but the film takes the idea of a Cruella de Vil origin story so deadly seriously that it ends up being funny when it’s not trying to be.
A love of pure aesthetics will help anyone looking to appreciate the film, whose sets and costumes are as forgiving as its soundtrack. As an occasion for Emma Stone to purr and vampire in elaborate dresses, Cruella is very nice. But the “too much is just enough” attitude that makes it visually pleasing also makes it a slog in the storytelling department. The elements are picked up and thrown aside like yesterday’s fashions – an approach that extends to supporting cast members including Kirby Howell-Baptiste and John McCrea, whose characters are quickly pushed to the sidelines of the story, having fulfilled their function of scoring a superficial “winning portrayal” for Disney. All the while, the film answers questions in detail that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever asking about Cruella de Vil’s untold origins.
There are reasonable explanations for CruellaMixture of tones and influences. Perhaps it was designed for a specific audience of tweens and young teens who are too old for Disney cartoons but not yet old enough for true amoral antiheroes. Likewise, maybe the film’s creators wanted to do something different with the material, only to see the sharp shards they introduced sanded down on its journey through the Mouse House sawmill. Cruella can’t really be described as a big swing; Disney tends too diligently to its IP address to truly authorize any of them. But the film’s mess can be reluctantly admired, whether intentional or not.