Disney’s continued quest to refresh its catalog with live updates continues with a particular choice to win back aspiring puppy killer Cruella De Vil. It worked pretty well for Maleficent, after all. Cruella fills with an epic soundtrack, high fashion glam-punk style, and a talented cast led by two endlessly charming tracks to give the eponymous character a sympathetic makeover along his path to villainy. Despite everything it has done in its favor, Disney’s latest live-action flick muddies its villain’s rebranding and rings hollow.
Cruella starts early on, with skunk-haired young Estella wreaking havoc at school until expulsion. Her single mom’s attempts to fund their move to town result in a proven Disney trope; Estella finds herself an orphan and alone in the street. Then she meets street comrades, Jasper and Horace, and the trio forge a system of expert con artists. That’s until Estella’s now grown up (Emma Stone) fashion designs attract the attention of tycoon Baroness von Hellman (Emma thompson), setting in motion a series of events that will cause Estella to embrace her wicked side. Luckily, she’ll find help along the way from Jasper (Joel fry), Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and their two adorable puppies.
All about the opening sequences running through Estella’s childhood cries of cartoon antics aimed at a much younger audience. It’s an odd choice, considering the narrative turns into something much more adult once Estella and her friends come of age. That’s not to say he’s not prone to some laughable choices, especially in the way the writers Dana fox and Tony McNamara bend over backwards to correct Cruella’s reputation for killing dogs. Step one, present the emotional reasons Estella despises Dalmatians. Step two, give him a henchman in the form of a cute terrier and mostly VFX rendering. She’s even close to Jasper and Horace’s one-eyed Chihuahua. See? She loves dogs, after all!
This is all very silly, which would belong in a movie aimed at children, except that Estella’s transition to Cruella is filled with murderous plots, scandals, and random outbursts of pettiness. It’s a rambling mix of light fun and some serious emotional plot points that don’t make it clear who the target audience is. Despite intending to retrace Estella’s footsteps to her 1961 animated iteration, her journey is erratic at best. That simple history stretches so long means Cruella exceeds its welcome.
As the narrative fails to defend itself, Cruella succeeds in style and spectacle. The production and costume design is lavish and breathtaking. The London settings of the 70s and the moments of haute couture are breathtaking. Many apparently draw horror; a late costume of the baroness emulated Bride of Frankenstein. It is enhanced by the endless barrage of needle drops that showcases the glam rock and punk offerings of the 60s-80s; the music essentially defines the identity of this film. As a high energy but low stakes fashion show, Cruella nails it.
Everyone brings their A-game to a material that does not correspond to their level. Director Craig gillespie delivers a visual and aural feast that can overwhelm you. Stone and Thompson bring irresistible complexity to the one-note characters, and the movie is at its best when played against each other. Cruella features plenty of jokes about the original Disney animated classic, including a little cameo from Dalmatian owner Roger (What we do in the shadows Kayvan novak), but they are often annoyed at random. Gillespie runs a superb showcase of talent that culminates in a gripping feature film, but which is narratively hollow. Disney villains tend to make great gateways to darker genre material, but Cruella eventually makes her wicked toothless.
Cruella will be released in select theaters and Disney + with Premier Access on May 28, 2021.