Movie Review: Disney’s “Cruella” a Success? It’s Not So Black and White ★★★☆☆

GOOD Morning Wilton‘s movie reviewer, Sebastian Hunt, is a senior at Wilton High School who loves film and television and hopes to become a filmmaker himself one day. He’s already gotten a jump start on that, producing his own screenplays and planning on submitting his work to film festivals. You can learn more about Sebastian on GMW‘s “Our Team” page. 

In the original 101 Dalmatians, Cruella de Vil was wisely deprived of dimension. The filmmakers recognized that the character worked best as a one-note narrative foil for our canine protagonists, and focused their attention on crafting an iconic visual look for the character. Plus, that theme song. (“Cruella de Vil … Cruella de Vil … if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will…”)

So, perhaps the simple fact that even Walt Disney thought it unwise to parse the moral nuance of a puppy killer should’ve indicated that Cruella — which seeks to explore the psychological inner-machinery of the infamous heiress — was an inherently bad idea. Nobody’s going to empathize with Cruella de Vil; it’s a losing battle. And in its best moments, the film is brazenly aware of that certainty.

When Cruella ignores its connection to the classic Disney film and embraces the ridiculous triviality of its existence, it’s actually fairly enjoyable. But when the film attempts any sort of thematic poignancy or tries to be something like a tween-friendly version ofJoker (right down to the inclusion of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile), it completely falls apart at the seams.

Emma Stone stars as Cruella, introduced as an orphaned grifter named Estella. After being fired from a department store, Estella is suddenly given the opportunity of her dreams: to work for Emma Thompson’s Baroness, a world-renowned fashion designer. But after a sudden revelation ties the Baroness to a family tragedy of Estella’s, Estella vows revenge and reawakens “Cruella” — a long-buried childhood personification of her most conniving desires and instincts.

Stone emerges as the highlight of Cruella. Her Estella/Cruella, despite having virtually nothing to do with the 1961 incarnation, is lots of fun. I additionally enjoyed Thompson as the Baroness, while the dazzlingly grungy costume design complements each character’s personality.

Where the film goes wrong — and reeks of multiple competing creative visions — is the script. It’s blatantly clear that, at one point, Cruella was meant as Disney’s “answer” to 2019’s Joker: i.e., a gritty re-imagining of a well-established villain (and one that wears white makeup, no less) aimed at a mature audience. This approach was thankfully discarded, but traces of it have found their way into the finished product. Jarringly bleak beats of narrative austerity are sprinkled throughout an otherwise silly film, regularly leading to moments of unintentional comedy. Ultimately, I suppose Cruella’s tonal dissonance renders it entertaining, even if it’s not in the manner that its creative team intended.

Despite its flaws, a 134-minute origin story about Cruella de Vil certainly could’ve been a lot worse. I understand that “could’ve been a lot worse” isn’t exactly high praise, but this isn’t a great film. Cruella possesses a deeply flawed screenplay at its foundation but nonetheless manages to be frequently engaging and boasts a delightfully histrionic lead performance. Recommended, if you’re interested.

Ratings Key:

★ — Bad (e.g., Transformers, Pixels, Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, Justice League

★★ — Mediocre (e.g., Incredibles 2, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Super 8, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle)

★★★ — Good (e.g., Pretty in Pink, Batman, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective)

★★★★ — Great (e.g., Jurassic Park, The Empire Strikes Back, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Social Network)

★★★★★ — Amazing (e.g., Dr. Strangelove, The Terminator, Do the Right Thing, Toy Story, Parasite)

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