'Cruella' Review

Sympathy for a Puppy Killer

Disney has been in the live-action remake business for awhile now and one wrinkle they’ve added is redemption arcs for some of their most famous villains. What started with Maleficent in 2018, continues with a new tale featuring the puppy killer, Cruella de Vil. Why is Disney trying to make us sympathize with villains?

Cruella stars Academy Award-winning actress Emma Stone as Estella. Estella had a tough childhood; she looked weird with hair like the singer Sia, her intelligence made other children feel threatened, and when angry a nasty side of her personality came to the forefront. It’s in those troubled times that Estella became Cruella. Given that she couldn’t play well with other children, Estella would need to be home educated. But before that could happen, a traumatic evening would change her life forever.

What follows is a mixture between the musical Oliver! and The Devil Wears Prada.

Estella meets two other children who become her family, and they fall into a rhythm of stealing to survive. Time passes and the three of them; Jasper (Joel Fry), Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and Estella become pickpockets. It makes them enough money to get by and that should be enough, but Estella has dreams of being a fashion designer. A few unlikely events later and she’s working for the most prestigious designer in London, The Baroness (Emma Thompson). The attention is enough at first, but soon Estella determines to get ahead in the vicious world of fashion, she’s going to have to become Cruella.

Director Craig Gillespie brought his style to Cruella that made his award winning feature I, Tonya a success story; Characters with an attitude, Paul Walter Hauser, and bizarre needle drops. The biggest strength of Cruella comes from the combined prowess of the two Emma’s. Whenever the two characters share the screen, the many problems with this story seem to disappear.

One of those problems is the inherent need to explain every character trait of Cruella. Did you need to know why Cruella doesn’t care for Dalmatians? That gets answered. What about her name? Yup, that too. Moments like these brings to mind another failed Disney origin story, Solo: A Star Wars Story. In that movie, the screenwriters decided to explore every bit of what made Han Solo interesting, thus removing a lot of the mystique behind the character. The same thing happens in Cruella. There has to be a fine balance between an origin story and ruining a mystery. A company once built on imagination, has found itself with the need to explain everything.

Another issue comes from Gillespie’s song selections. Given Disney’s licensing power, no song was likely unavailable to the production. While they aren’t inherently bad songs, the relentless nature of the songs turns Cruella into a jukebox musical. The music isn’t subtle in the least and distracts from the action on the screen, as opposed to enhancing it.

Even with these problems, Cruella ends up as being fine. Paul Walter Hauser steals most of the scenes he appears in. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson do seem like they are having a blast with the material, even if they are confined to the rules of the IP. And the costume design is interesting. Cruella isn’t offensive in any way, but you’ll be left wondering what was the point. [C]

Cruella launches in theaters and on Disney+ (with additional Premier Access fee) on Friday, May 28th.