Another Disney live action revisit of their treasured stories and characters has arrived with a stench. Directed by Craig Gillespie from the work of no less than five credited writers, Cruella looks at its eponymous dog-murderer as a young woman tiptoeing from grifter towards anti-hero, a shadow of the outright evil villain we know her to be. Emma Stone is at the reigns as Estella, a young woman whose more wicked impulses allow her to adopt the Cruella De Vil persona that is still largely unrecognizable to the iconic character as we know her. It may not be the worst of Disney’s recent bastardization of their archives—it’s hard to imagine The Lion King or Alice in Wonderland having a challenger, but let’s not jinx ourselves—but it certainly is one of the most brazen in terms of betraying its source.
The film reintroduces us to the erratic villain as an orphaned scammer with an ambition for fashion. Set sometime in a vague amalgam between British Invasion era 60s and pre-punk 70s (with an aim at all tastes, fandoms, and buying dollars in between), her origin story isn’t as diabolical as you might expect. Estella engages in small-time crime with her henchmen Horace and Jasper (Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry, respectively) with an eye on a primo department store. Her scheming catches the unaware eye of fashion elite girlboss The Baroness (Emma Thompson, flying high above what the film deserves from her) and Estella lands a spot in her workroom. But her place in the fashion world isn’t so easily cemented, nor is her inclination for lawbreaking diminished.
Less of an origin story than it is a riff on IP, Cruella is a film meant more for revenue than world-expanding or even a simple good time at the movies. Seemingly built by an algorithm, it immediately sets off as a hodgepodge of anachronisms and canned dialogue, coasting on Stone’s archly winking performance. An increasingly unhinged set of needle drops serve as Gillespie’s stand-in for tone-setting. Cruella chucks song cue after song cue at the viewer, with music becoming the film’s primary method for creating its era-unspecific madcap—not only is it lazy, but it relies only on the most cliche tracks and bands, rendering the film down to an even blander confection.
Exceptionally corporate even by the standard of film’s made to sell t-shirts, the film follows every origin story cliche while relying on contrivances to generate storytelling energy rather than its set-up or characters. Jenny Beavan costumes the film to the hilt, delivering sumptuous creations with more palpable playfulness that only underline the film’s stunted humor elsewhere. Stone and Thompson swing for it, imitating each other’s haughty posturing gamely but still burdened by lackluster material. It’s mostly a shame that the film couldn’t be delightfully frivolous, or a bawdy romp through uplifting costuming excess. Instead it is weighed down by obvious ploys at merchandising and autopilot plotting.
Especially dull as an origin story but incoherent to the villain she becomes; the deducible reasoning for her later craving for dalmatian flesh is laughable. Further issues persist where the film takes empty stabs at representation by casting Black actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita Darling and John McCrea as a queer, Bowie-inflected Artie, complacent to include both of them firmly as plot devices on the sidelines rather than as essential to the story. The roteness and blatant carbon copying of other narratives isn’t just frustrating as a viewer, it’s deeply depressing. Cruella is happy with the bare minimum, and we deserve more. We’re meant to buy a soundtrack and tacky licensed clothing and accessories, not to invest in character or indulge in a unique, visionary take on a character.
The real grift within Cruella is Gillespie and the Mouse House stealing the audience’s precious time and money with such an embarrassing cash grab, treating us like the cattle of capitalism.