Disney has a thing for its villains, and Cruella de Vil has always been one of the company's most iconic. New this weekend (in theaters and available on Disney+), "Cruella" gives us the origin story of a character who first appeared on-screen in the 1961 animated classic, "101 Dalmations" and who most recently was portrayed by Glenn Close in the live-action 1996 remake, "101 Dalmations" and its dog of a sequel, "102 Dalmations" (Close gives her seal of approval over this new version of the character, being that she's one of the film's Executive Producers).
Emma Stone is a perfect young Cruella de Vil, with the ability to be so likable and angelic at times but who can also turn on her devilish side with a quick flash of a look and a grin. There's nothing at all wrong with her rendition of the infamous Disney villainess, but "Cruella" is clogged with so much unnecessary and distracting nonsense that it - just barely - doesn't quite work.
Stone plays a young Cruella, who befriends her two animated accomplices from the original film, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), on the streets of London. A spark of love is hinted at between Jasper and Ella (not yet "Cruella") but is never quite explored. The threesome work together on a series of cons, plundering their way through life, until Cruella gets a job as a fashion designer under the famously cruel and narcissistic Baroness (Emma Thompson). Ella works her way into The Baroness's favor while finding out more and more about her own troubled past...which has some interesting ties to her new boss.
The worst part about "Cruella" is that for all of its originality (and there is plenty), it feels like a cobbled-together Frankenstein's monster of other familiar films. The main story steals quite heavily from "The Devil Wears Prada," and the film ends with an implausible, convoluted ploy lifted straight from "The Three Amigos" (where it worked much better given that film's tone). In-between, there is Greek tragedy sprinkled in, and even some obvious nods to other Disney films...drawing inspiration from "101 Dalmations" is fully acceptable in this case, but stealing climactic scenes from "The Lion King" seems a bit unforgivably egregious.
But where its plot and structure are thinly drawn, "Cruella" is a visual wonder...it's fantastically colorful and rich, and is perhaps the closest a live-action Disney film has ever gotten to feeling animated. The incredible costume design, the set production, the hair and makeup are all bound to be considered front-runners for Oscars next year...even with the early-year release, it would be a shocking omission if "Cruella" wasn't considered in these categories.
But at well over two hours, the film is unnecessarily long, starting off strong and slowly derailing. The comic relief comes mostly from Paul Walter Hauser's Horace, who might make the children chuckle but will have adults wondering about his career choices. The soundtrack is a beat-you-over-the-head medley of power ballads and rock from the 70s - featuring The Doors, Supertramp, Nina Simone, Electric Light Orchestra, Queen and The Clash - that essentially screams at you "hey look at this movie, isn't it cool???" It might have been considered as such, with a little less pomp.
The ongoing humanization of Disney villains aside (we've now seen Maleficent and Cruella given the origin-story treatment...you know Scar, Ursula and Captain Hook can't be too far behind), "Cruella" is a film that I'm going to guess most people will enjoy. I enjoyed it too, actually. It's just that this version of breaking bad could have been, well, better.
Can't we just have our villains? Must their evil be explained as stemming from some sort of childhood trauma? Can't one of these baddies just embrace their dark side? For a company that has become legendary for "Disney-fying" stories that originally had more edge, "Cruella" might be their most Disney-fied effort to date.
Genre: Comedy, Crime.
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes.
Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, John McCrea, Mark Strong, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste
Directed by Craig Gillespie ("I, Tonya," "The Finest Hours," "Million Dollar Arm," "Fright Night (2011)"), "Lars and the Real Girl").
"Cruella" is in theaters and on Disney+ on Friday, May 28th, 2021.
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