Cruella

cruella

It’s entirely possible that the less real estate 101 Dalmatians and its various iterations occupy in your emotional neighborhood, the more you may feel free to enjoy Cruella, a live-action prequel unveiling the origins of one Cruella De Vil. She was born Estella, was orphaned as a girl, then fell in with a couple of Dickensian child grifters. Eventually she grows into Emma Stone, who dyes her natural two-tone hair a less showy deep blood-red and goes to work for the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a fabulous and malicious fashion-design icon. Cruella is about how Estella becomes Cruella, though tonally it’s unstable and off-putting, and it doesn’t seem directed so much as assembled.

That’s to be expected from director Craig Gillespie, whose previous film, I, Tonya, had similar themes and similar problems. Gillespie again can’t resist aping Martin Scorsese and swooping his camera through crowded rooms while the soundtrack is infested with period needle-drops. Cruella is supposedly set largely in the ‘70s, so we get the Stones, the Clash, Supertramp, the Doors, etc. As compellingly odd as it is to hear a Clash song in the middle of a Disney film, what people like Gillespie don’t get about the way Scorsese uses needle-drops is how the music emerges organically and emotionally — it’s not just there to make the movie cool. Cruella too often feels like a bunch of music videos glued together. It seems made to be thrown on the TV in the background of a party.

That’d be a stylish party, though, and if the movie launches a thousand Cruella Halloween costumes and drag queens next month, it will have done some good work. Truth to tell, a snarky, punk-goth riff on a Disney villainess sounded fine to me; I was a big fan of the Mouse’s previous toe-dip in this pool, Maleficent (though I missed the sequel). Full of pain and nuance, Maleficent more than redeemed the antagonist of Sleeping Beauty. But Cruella, though grounded in grief and poverty, is never less convincing than when it wants you to be sad — it’s just irrepressibly hosting its own outré costume party, although we don’t feel invited. Stone does put across a late-inning monologue directed at a fountain that represents her dead mum, but otherwise the movie’s conception doesn’t allow her or Thompson to transcend cartoonishness.

Here and there, Thompson does share the fun she’s having, swanning around in diabolically smashing outfits while everyone around her recoils in abject fear of her, and in some moments Stone’s conniving Estella/Cruella appears to be taking notes from the Baroness. (Or Stone from Thompson.) The level of craft is as high as Disney’s pockets are deep (one hears murmurs of a $200 million budget), but there was probably a firm ceiling on how arch and camp — on how gay, let’s not dance around it — Cruella could get without losing track of its bottom line. So it’s this sort of semi-closeted thing (though it boasts, in John McCrea’s fashion-shop owner Artie, Disney’s first “originally created openly gay character”) that doesn’t trade in nearly enough fun outsider queer-coding for a cult audience and isn’t legitimately queer enough for people who relate to Cruella and her cadre to be interested in it.

Even with all its weaknesses I might’ve cut Cruella some slack if it didn’t seem to play itself out at the 60-minute mark with over an hour left to go. A MacGuffin pendant is involved, leading to a tired twist. The style of the film comes on all Punk Sounds of the ‘70s, but the narrative is purely corporate story-meeting, with a lot of unacknowledged weirdness to unpack — we’re supposed to be jazzed that one sociopathically ambitious queen bitch is being replaced by another, who will go on to make dresses out of puppy skins? There’s no way an endeavor this costly is going to end on an ambiguous note or even in a way that closes off sequels. Nor does it want to go whole-hog into celebration, ironic or otherwise, of Cruella’s baser qualities. Cruella herself would find the movie dull and obvious, a wannabe punk decked out in Hot Topic.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, prequel

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