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Review: Cruella (2021)

Cruella (2021)

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Premise: An origin story of Cruella De Vil, the villain originally featured in Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Orphaned as a child, Estella (Emma Stone) creates an alter ego as she breaks into the London fashion scene of the 1970s under the tutelage of The Baroness (Emma Thompson).

What Works: Disney’s live action reimaginings of their animated catalog can be divided into two categories: straightforward remakes like 2017’s Beauty and the Beast and origin stories like 2014’s Maleficent. 2021’s Cruella is in the latter category and it is one of Disney’s better live-action redos precisely because it isn’t tethered to the past. The filmmakers acknowledge the classic films but Cruella owes less to either version of One Hundred and One Dalmatians than it does to Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada. As imagined in Cruella, an ambitious young woman wants to ascend the fashion world and settle old scores with a couture mogul. She invents the persona of Cruella De Vil but the alter ego gradually becomes reality. Setting this story within the fashion industry allows the filmmakers to indulge some outrageous art direction and the costumes and sets are terrifically designed. The cast is stellar, starting with Emma Stone as Cruella. She nails the voice and laugh but also the transformation of Estella into Cruella. Emma Thompson plays The Baroness and Thompson has a talent for playing witheringly cruel authority figures. The cast also includes Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Cruella’s assistants Jasper and Horace and Fry and Hauser turn their roles into more than just sidekicks.

What Doesn’t: Running 135 minutes, Cruella is too long. The first third of the picture is weighed down by redundant scenes that belabor the title character’s orphaned childhood. The movie also suffers from unnecessary voiceover. Cruella periodically narrates the story but the voiceover only ever explains what’s obvious. Cruella is set in the 1970s but there’s no evident reason for that. The book One Hundred and One Dalmatians was published in 1956 and the film adaptations were set in their contemporary eras. Cruella doesn’t feel much like a period piece; there’s little linking it to the 1970s except for the constant parade of period music. The filmmakers constantly plunk 1970s songs onto the soundtrack but the selections come across random. With a few exceptions, there’s no link between the music and what’s happening on screen. It’s as if the filmmakers just dumped a generic 1970s playlist into the soundtrack. Also, like Maleficent, this film never gives itself or its title character over to madness and evil. Cruella is reimagined as an antihero rather than a villain. It’s a way for Disney and the filmmakers to have it both ways but the compromise dulls the edge off the material. 

Bottom Line: Much like the title character, Cruella is unwieldy and untidy but also fun. This is certainly one of Disney’s better live action reimaginings of its animated classics, although less because of its story and largely because of its style and performances.

Episode: #854 (June 6, 2021)