Cruella marks the second time Disney has given us a live-action reimagining of one of their iconic villains following 2014’s Maleficent. And much like Maleficent, Cruella is a movie that was a very frustrating watch. There are a lot of elements to the film that I really liked, particularly the look and the vibe of everything. But that all gets bogged down by bloated runtime and a very messy plot.
Cruella de Vil’s villain origin story kicks off when she is twelve-years-old, where she goes by the name of Estella. Already donning her unique black and white hair, Estella is a precocious, brilliant child who always seems to be getting in trouble. When she gets expelled from private school her mother decides to take Estella to London, but not before stopping at the mansion of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), who is throwing a lavish party. While there, Estella gets into some trouble which tragically causes her mother’s death. Believing it was her fault, Estella hides away in a truck and ends up in downtown London where she meets Jasper and Horace, two hoodlums always grifting in order to survive the London streets.
Years later, Estella (Emma Stone), Jasper (Joel Fry), and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) are a trio of grifters, continuously coming up with scheme after scheme from stealing wallets on a bus to stealing items from hotel rooms. Recognizing that Estella is better than the grifting life, Jasper manages to get Estella a job at London’s hottest fashion store, though as a janitor. Though she works hard, her snooty manager refuses to give her a chance as a window dresser. One night as she stays late at work, Estella gets drunk of her manager’s booze and re-dresses the bland window display into a chaotic, punk rock display, which catches the eye of the Baroness, who owns the store and hires Estella to work for her. Estella immediately becomes the Baroness’ top designer, yet doesn’t show Estella the appreciation she deserves. With animosity between Estella and The Baroness growing and secrets about the relationship between Estella’s mother and The Baroness revealing themselves, Estella plots revenge using an alter-ego: a punk-fashioned, black and white rocking, chaos wreaking fashionista, Cruella de Ville.
I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie brings a lot of energy to Cruella, maybe even too much. There is an excited energy to Cruella that is undeniable and really grabs you. Quick cuts, numerous needle drops of recognizable songs, swift camera movements, and an inconsistent voiceover are all over the film and while some of that stuff is cool, but it didn’t all seem necessary. The needle drops are rather excessive, as the songs don’t always fit in the scenes. They also didn’t always seem necessary because the score by the great Nicholas Britell is really good and I wish the film used more of his score and highlighted one of the best composers working in movies today. Some of the camera moves were fun and reminiscent of Guy Ritchie but they were coupled with chaotic editing. Gillespie’s passion for the film is felt in every frame, but there is a lot of technical pieces that didn’t need to be here and I wish he had just chilled out a bit and ground the film more. Gillespie felt like a rabid child in a candy store who got carried away and now has a dozen cavities and a never ending stomach ache.
Gillespie’s energy and passion does translate elsewhere, though. The costumes are incredible. From the hoodlum outfits of Jasper and Horace to the lavish outfits worn by Cruella, every costume if gorgeous is bound for an Oscar nomination. The sets look good and the overall vibe of the movie is interesting and arguably the darkest Disney movie ever made. Gillespie also gets terrific performances from his entire cast. Emma Stone is having an absolute blast as our titular villain. She starts as a savvy, troubled grifter who gets the opportunity of a lifetime, only to have her life twisted and her become a badass, chaos-making fashion legend. It’s a devilishly fun performance and Stone kills. The other Emma, Thompson, is equally great doing her best Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, a cold, soulless genius you love to hate. Her and Stone have some great scenes together. And Fry and Hauser are an absolute blast as Jasper and Horace. Fry adds some heart in a relatively dark film, as he doesn’t like seeing Estella’s descent into madness and wants her to be the crafty grifter he grew up with and Hauser’s costume changes, charisma, and comedic timing are perfect and a highlight of the film.
What I struggled most with in Cruella was the story of the film. The film runs at an over-longed two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes and the movie feels even longer. But even with the long runtime, there isn’t a lot to the movie. It’s a very simple story of deception and decent into madness that we have seen before that could have easily cut twenty or thirty minutes. The film also makes you really question how this Cruella would eventually turn into the puppy-hating maniac we saw in the original 101 Dalmatians and by Glenn Close in the live-action remake from the 90’s. It feels more like The Devil Wears Prada and Joker mixed together than an origin movie about one of Disney’s greatest villains.
There is a lot to like about Cruella. The messy energy, the look and vibe, the score, and the terrific ensemble are all worth the price of admission. It’s just frustrating the story is overly simple in a bloated runtime and that some of Gillespie’s choices felt forced. Though even with these problems, this is a cool, darker vision of Disney that I hope continues in the future.
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