**1/2 out of ****
(for some violence and thematic elements)
Released: May 28, 2021 in theaters and on Disney Plus
Runtime: 134 minutes
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Paul Walter Hauser, Joel Fry, Mark Strong, Kayvan Novak, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, John McCrea, Emily Beecham
Playing in theaters and on Disney Plus
A movie can be well made but still poorly directed. Cruella is a perfect example of that.
Imagine if Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola had a baby. Then, imagine that baby grew up and did a bunch of coke. Then it made a movie. For Disney.
You might read that and think, “Sold!” Sure, it sounds intriguing, and there’s no question that Cruella is worth seeing in the strict visual sense, given its abundance of lush artistry. Chic to the hilt, this 101 Dalmatians live action prequel lavishes Oscar-worthy design in every area of its palette.
The problem, though, is that it’s more music video than movie, more style reel than story. Everyone brings their A-game and absolutely nails it except for the guy at the helm.
Cruella is what happens when a filmmaker gets everything he wants (and then some, including two stellar leads) but then tries way too hard with it. That’s par for the course with director Craig Gillespie, a man whose penchant for indulging artifice even caricaturizes his smaller budget indie fare like I, Tonya.
Now in Cruella, Gillespie takes his aesthetic and absolutely assaults us with it for over two hours.
That needless length is frontloaded in an extended 15-minute childhood prologue that should’ve been completely excised. The minimal-but-necessary expositions about the title character’s orphan origins (as well as her Dalmatian disdain) could’ve been dropped more economically along the way.
When Emma Stone’s adult Estella finally hits the screen it’s an overdue welcome, as is the early-70s London punk era (a brilliantly chosen milieu), but the storytelling doesn’t necessarily improve. Gillespie’s team of designers certainly distract us with an eye-popping, candy-coated visual feast — filled with gorgeously detailed sets, inspired flourishes of the iconic black-and-white makeup baseline, and genuinely jaw-dropping high fashion costume couture — but Cruella is all style and no sentiment.
That bloat quickly becomes tiresome thanks to the film’s Red Bull energy. Non-stop and hyper-kinetic, with a constantly moving camera and attention-deficit editing, the propulsive nature leaves little space for emotional subtext. Characters are undercut, as are their arcs, often reducing performances to a series of poses. Along the way, Gillespie ends up limiting our sympathy for the de Vil.
Emma Thompson downshifts the relentless velocity to a slower, more intentional gear by the sheer force of her range and keen instincts. As Estella’s callous, cutthroat fashion designer mentor The Baroness (a beta version of Cruella, basically), Thompson calculates as Stone chews, and their escalating clash is delicious (especially as it triggers Estella’s schizophrenic break into the Cruella alter ego, where Stone is at her best). It would not be hyperbole to praise Thompson as downright brilliant here. Her performance is metered to absolute perfection.
Estella’s decent into Cruella’s giddy nihilism is anchored with some humanity by her put-upon sidekicks Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), who prove a redeeming force (to a point) for their conflicted leader, but Estella nevertheless gradually becomes the thing that she hates. (It’s worth noting that Hauser, a native Michigander, delivers a convincing cockney accent, along with an overall satisfying comic turn with heart, and Fry plays Jasper as a humble conscience, even for a grifter.)
Broad in comic tone, the supporting ensemble often makes the proceedings feel more like Disney Channel than Disney classic. Those campy inclinations are betrayed, however, when the story takes a dark turn about 90 minutes in, making for an unexpectedly chilling twist in this targeted family fare (leading to the film’s PG-13 rating).
Still, that scene may be the only reason the subsequent climax and inevitable showdown delivers some actual pathos (even if not entirely earned), culminating in an end that could be labeled as “conventionally tragic.”
In other words, it delivers a villain we can sort of get behind for a possible sequel (or so Disney hopes), even if how that’s achieved appears to be a bit of a challenge — especially given the mid-credits bonus scene, one that teases an evolution towards this prequel’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians roots.
But if this Cruella ends up being all bad, that actually wouldn’t be all bad — especially with Emma Stone devouring every moment.