It’s always a risky move to flip the script and focus on the villain. Meant to be one-dimensional and not at all sympathetic, for the most part, villains are there to ruin the party. We don’t care why or how, as they’re the ones we focus our ire upon. So by taking Cruella de Vil, the frightening Dalmatian-hating tour-de-force from animated children’s classic 101 Dalmatians, making her a focal point and giving her a lengthy backstory, Disney is gambling.
Subtracting her from the animated environment is also a risk, putting a lot of pressure on star Emma Stone, who for the most part, succeeds in the role. (A live-action representation from Glenn Close fared well in 1996.) While Stone is not as scenery-chewing as this movie’s villain — Baroness von Hellman, played by Emma Thompson — her wry expressions and surprisingly accurate put-on British accent get her through.
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It’s the convoluted plot, which seems to be cut-and-pasted from a multitude of other movies, and the long length of the film (2+ hours) that do it in. There’s only so much vamping that one can stand.
What other movies are you talking about?
As the movie progresses, it’s as if the audience is being shuttled from one film franchise to another. Cruella begins as an origin story set in the 1970s, with the black-and-white-haired child, named Estella, causing trouble at school. After a horrific event takes place — it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without a tragedy to start things off — Estella is thrust onto the street to fend for herself. There, she meets her new “family,” street kids Jasper and Horace, whom you might recall as Cruella’s henchmen in the original movies. The group of three becomes professional criminals, à la Oliver!
Eventually, things turn into a 1970s version of The Devil Wears Prada, as Estella is a genius with an aspiration for fashion and clothing design. Thompson’s Baroness is essentially Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, a harsh, humourless, fearful figure atop the fashion game, who treats her employees like garbage. Estella does her damnedest to get in her good books and rise within the company after she lands a job there. Sound familiar? As Estella fails to suppress her dark side (Cruella) and wants to seeks revenge, she begins to emerge at various galas around the city, where Cruella shows up in daring, avant-garde outfits to upstage the Baroness.
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Here we get our Joker and Birds of Prey similarities, as Cruella’s outfits are reminiscent of Harley Quinn’s out-there, punkesque looks, and her penchant for crime and debauchery are explained away, as the Joker’s were, by recounting the tragedy of her past. When Cruella plans the ultimate scheme to exact revenge on the Baroness, we even get a taste of Oceans 13 as the trio hatches an elaborate heist during the uber-glamourous black-and-white ball.
That’s a lot.
It is! And it’s hard to reconcile that the movie is trying to humanize a well-known Disney villain who seeks to skin puppies for fur coats. That grotesque element, present in the preceding movies, is almost invisible here. There is a nod to the skinning, but “of course” this 2021 Cruella would never. It’s unclear whether this movie is a prequel or taking place in an entirely different universe, as the story is not at all what we’ve previously learned about her.
It’s also difficult to compartmentalize or rationalize Estella’s, Jasper’s and Horace’s crimes. Presumably, they spend at least a decade or two on the streets of London stealing and otherwise causing mayhem — yet never seem to get caught or punished. And what about their dozens of nameless victims?
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Is there nothing from the original story of ‘101 Dalmatians’?
Apart from the Horace and Jasper characters, and the new embodiments of Roger and Anita (the original couple from the animated classic) as completely different roles, there isn’t much. There are a grand total of three Dalmatians in the movie, and for the most part, they are very noticeably CGIed. It’s distracting in almost every scene, enough to make you ask why they didn’t use real dogs at least part of the time.
The movie’s soundtrack is packed with hits from a wide-ranging era, including Car Wash, a Tina and Ike Turner rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and a weird The Doors song choice (One in Five, of all their songs). In almost all instances, the music is jarring and doesn’t quite fit with the film. Meant to provide continuity, it instead brings you out of it, though it could be a musical Coles Notes for your child.
So what’s the bottom line?
Probably OK for kids who are good with sitting and watching a movie for more than two hours, Cruella is entertaining enough for children and adults — though be prepared for surprise or questions when the tragedy happens near the beginning.
You just can’t think too hard on it, and because of its lack of attachment to the preceding films, it’s best to watch it as a standalone project. Welcome to the 2021 summer blockbuster season. At least the fashion is an absolute feast for the eyes.
‘Cruella’ is now streaming on Disney+ in Canada.
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