REVIEW: Cruella – A Fun Good-Looking Mess

Cruella is a wild ride of a movie, one that zigzags between enjoyable fun to frustrating. The film’s overall style, game cast, and chaotic party energy makes it an enjoyable time, and one that may connect with an aging millennial generation that is longing for being a teenager.

“Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil. If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will”

When it comes to the Disney remakes of their animated classics, they tend to fit into a couple of categories.

  1. Practically shot-for-shot remakes that stick very close to the original. Tend to be reserved for films of the Disney Renaissance (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lady and the Tramp).
  2. Films from the early days of the company that take the loose approach of the original and craft a stronger three-act narrative (The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon)
  3. Films that essentially act as loose sequels with the animated film being the chaotically “original” or starting basis (Christopher Robin, Alice in Wonderland)
  4. Dramatic reimaginings/hybrids of the original story and hypothetical sequels or prequels (Maleficent, Mulan, Dumbo).

Cruella fits somewhere comfortably between the third and fourth categories. This is the second time Disney has made a live-action adaptation of 101 Dalmatians, with the 1996 film starring Glenn Close being a more traditional remake. Cruella opts to do a villain origin story similar to Maleficent, down to the after-credit moment essentially letting fans know that this film is canon with the original. Aside from that and a few blink-and-you-will-miss-it name drops, this is pretty much a stand-alone film that has little to do with 101 Dalmatians.

Cruella, directed by Craig Gillespie, stars Emma Stone as the title character. Set in 1970s London, Cruella, born Estella de Vil, is an aspiring designer who becomes employed by fashion icon Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Along with her two friends and eventually henchmen, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), Estella begins her quest to take down the Baroness and become the new fashion icon of London. She’ll do so under the guise of her dark persona she has kept hidden for years, Cruella, in a story that explores Cruella’s tragic past as to what makes her the iconic villain.

One of the biggest things working in the film’s favor is its style, which is fitting given the central character. Cruella absolutely should be a stylish over-the-top film and it turns out Craig Gillespie was the right man for the job. While the Disney remakes tend to have very big name talented directors like Tim Burton, Jon Favreau, and Guy Ritchie, either by order of the studio or because the directors fear to deviate too far from the classic, many of the films tend to feel less like the voice of the director’s individual style and more like live-action stage shows of the classic film. Nothing wrong with that of course (who doesn’t like a good Disney stage show), but it does leave the remakes as pale imitations of their classics where it is hard-pressed to find someone that would say rather watch the new Lion King instead of the original, or even marathon them back to back out of enjoyment. Gillespie is one of the most underrated journeymen directors in Hollywood. The Darkest Hour and Million Dollar Arm are serviceable enjoyable films that feel like relics of another time. Lars and the Real Girl is a very unique different movie for both him and star Ryan Gosling. Fright Night is one of the best horror remakes ever made and might be a stronger film than the original. He really broke out with I, Tonya and one thing that makes his films so enjoyable is he isn’t afraid to have fun with the editing. He knows some of his films are a little bland sounding on paper, but he sprinkles enough flavor with interesting transition, overlapping cuts, and even direct action to the camera that it is enough to spice of the material and he brings that same sense of chaotic ‘let’s have good time’ energy to Cruella. Even when the film is frustrating in story choices, the movie is never boring and Gillespie knows how to keep an audience engaged.

The script by Dana Fox (How To Be Single) and Tony McNamara (The Favorite) with a story by credit from Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), and actor Steve Zissis is the biggest issue. Mainly in that Cruella goes through four or five different ‘master plans’ that take the movie from heist film to rising icon film to revenge film all while Cruella’s character and motivation jump all over the place. She becomes the iconic Cruella de Vil in the second act but shifts back to a more caring middle ground persona by the end. While that makes a certain amount of sense (that neither of her two personas was the real one but something more in the middle), it feels weird by the end where they set up that she has now fully transformed into Cruella de Vil when her personality doesn’t suggest that. It also has one too many ‘twist’ reveals by the start of Act 3 where it feels like they are messing around with the audience. Luckily Gilipse’s direction and the actor’s performances smooth over most of these issues so you don’t really notice when watching the movie.

When it comes to the cast it’s all solid. Emma Stone is having a real blast being able to play to very different versions of the same character and cutting loose in the more over-the-top scenes. It’s not subtle but you really don’t want that from this character, and the moments where the film feels a little confused is when they try to inject a sense of caring behind Cruella in the end. Emma Thompson is one of our finest actresses and while there may not be much to the Baroness on the page, Thompson’s look and voice get the right note for this villain. Paul Walter Hauser gave a great performance in Gillespie’s previous film I, Tonya, and here is doing his best Bob Hoskins impression that makes for the perfect cartoon sidekick. Hauser is really good at playing these types of characters (reminder for everyone to watch Cobra Kai). Joel Fry might be the standout as Jasper; while I don’t think you needed Jasper as ‘the good one’ of the crew, Fry gives a real sweetness to him and is funny as the straight man. I hope he gets more work after this and honestly has the leading man charm for a traditional rom-com or action movie.

Yet the real stars of the movie are the production design work by Fiona Crombie (The Favourite) and the costume work by Academy Award-winning Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road). Both the costume work and set design are brimming with creativity that fit the mad dark mind of Cruella de Vil. While much has been said about the film’s Punk Rock aesthetic in the film’s pre-release marketing, what’s interesting is that the film doesn’t really say much about the punk rock movement in a literal sense but more in a spiritual sense. Cruella never gives birth to punk rock fashion but the idea of rebelling against an establishment (here established fashion) is what makes Cruella such a fascinating character to the citizens of London. Her arrivals and costumes are big, bold, and meant to shock as she adopts a very out there ratty look from the more upper-class citizens. There is a scene where they hijack the lighting to spell Cruella’s name in bright purple, and it comes off as the set up for a stage show at Disneyland for Halloween.

The film’s soundtrack is a lot, and despite the punk aesthetic that the film wants the audience to associate with the film, it lacks a lot of punk rock music. It features one Clash song, but weirdly enough not ‘I Fought the Law’ or ‘London Calling’ (which I do give it points for not using that obvious needle drop but immediately deduct it because of the overused final song choice). The music is more a collection of various rock and pop songs from the late ’60s and early ’70s and there are A LOT of needle drops. Sometimes the soundtrack is a bit much and leans a little on the overused side, but it was never obnoxiously abrasive like Suicide Squad, and some of the choices were classic favorites that you wouldn’t quite have associated with a villain character. It feels like it is a nice intro to music for a younger audience, but is there a younger audience for this movie?

The film being PG-13 does raise an interesting question about who or what the target demographic is here. The visual aesthetic choices and the overall mood of the film feel like something that would have been made in 2006-2011 when Tim Burton’s aesthetic was the teen aspiration, a generation of teenagers that felt like moody outsiders with a flair for gothic and punk. Yet that really isn’t what teens appear to be into. Step inside a Hot Topic now and a lot of it is more hope punk, a brighter more optimistic look on the world. Not bad by any means but then it feels like this is less for a generation of teenagers than people who were teenagers back then and sort of miss that feeling and visual look. This could have been a lot of teenagers’ favorite movie back then, where now it will maybe feel like a nostalgic reminder.

2020 was a year where there was no traditional summer movie season and audiences had to make their own at home. 2021 is when audiences are being welcomed back to the theater, and Cruella (alongside A Quiet Place Part II) is now the kick-off to the summer movie season. It feels like a throwback to the type of movies that used to get released in the summer before superhero movies were the dominant form. A big-budget adaptation of a popular nostalgic property with big-name stars that is messy, but also a fun enjoyable time and one that most likely will gain a ravish cult following in the years to come. When it comes to live-action Disney reimaginings, this is certainly on the ‘I would watch this again’ side of things. Cruella is a fun return to theaters before the big event films arrive.

Cruella is in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.

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