I don’t give a s**t where the stuff I love comes from!!! I just love the stuff I love!Patton Oswalt, during an unhinged rant about the Star Wars prequels.
Let’s get it out of the way, right at the tippety-top: I’m perfectly fine with villains who arrive fully-formed. Cruella. Maleficent. The Joker. Dr. Evil. They should poof into the story with a puff of silver smoke, already primed to enter the heroes’ nightmares and torment Gotham, or Oz, or…you know, wherever. I don’t care if daddy forgot their birthday as a child, or how they came by their gauche outfits and infamous catchphrases. They exist, and that’s more than enough. With that said, I’ll go ahead and leave this on the stoop: For all its inherent uselessness, Cruella actually serves up a decent amount of fun.
As you’ve probably guessed, the film imagines an origin for the skunk-headed Vampira from 101 Dalmatians. Turns out, she was once Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), a frightened orphan girl who learned to scam and steal on the streets of Swinging London. Over time, Estella forms a criminal mod squad with Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), who would later become her dognapping goons. They squeak by from lifting wallets and watches, but it’s quickly clear that Estella is meant for more than this grind of grifting.
Once she becomes a young woman, Estella (Emma Stone) seeks entrée into the fashion world. She takes a job for the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a fashion tycoon who sashays through every scene like a cyclone of snark. Estella quickly displays real dressmaking talent, but the Baroness constantly finds ways to insult and marginalize her new protege. Eventually, Estella learns of a deeply personal connection to this hateful woman, and the resulting anger draws out a deadly alter ego: Cruella de Vil.
Cruella is a lavish affair, high on production values and stocked with period music. In a pretty cool twist, the filmmakers actually use all those dolla-dolla bills to enhance the overall vibe: Everything gets infused with a hint of a hint of punk rock, as if CBGB’s Never Mind the Bollocks aesthetic could be contained within a can of La Croix. This Diet Bowie chic gets paired with a heavy helping of power-soul on the soundtrack, wherein Nina Simone sits comfortably next to Tina Turner and the Ohio Players. These elements imbue Cruella with a much-needed edge when the plot goes all frumpy.
Stone’s lead performance also supplies the film with more bounce to the ounce. She clearly enjoys the role, whether it’s Estella’s mouse-meek vulnerability or Cruella’s pyroclastic campiness. This energy comes across in every scene, and it elevates the entire movie a few notches. Thompson obliges by cranking her bitchiness up to 11 and devouring the scenery with relative ease. What could’ve been The Devil Wears Dalmatians gets rescued by the savage beauty these two actresses bring to the production.
Unfortunately, Cruella isn’t without its blemishes. At 134 minutes, it’s wayyy too long. Director Craig Gillespie dedicates a good chunk of the film’s second half to fan service, setting up little homages to 101 Dalmatians that nobody was asking for. This could’ve and should’ve been a goofy 90-minute love letter for anybody who wanted to read it. Instead, we get too many characters, too many Stone-Thompson staredowns, too many Jasper-Horace shenanigans, and not enough screenwriting juice to keep it all going. As it is, Cruella winds up being too much movie.
Overlength aside, I really couldn’t shake my basic dislike of prequels: I mean, you know Anakin becomes Darth Vader, and that Cruella will become a maniacal, cackling monster. This fact makes the movie entertaining, funny, but completely hollow. To paraphrase Patton Oswalt: I don’t need to know where Cruella comes from. I just love to hate the characters I hate to love.
134 min. PG-13. Disney+ Premium.