Excuse me for the simplicity of this observation, but: a movie has to be for someone. The problem with Disney’s ongoing strategy of live-action adaptations of their animated classics is that these movies feel less like they’re for audiences and more like they’re for Big Mouse itself. Toys. Merchandise. Themed makeup and clothes, new rides at Disney theme parks. It all collapses into a messy swamp of content, which is exactly the capitalist nuclear soup that gives rise to a movie like Cruella. This cast, these costumes, this soundtrack, and all of it combines into a movie devoid of all impact and all interest. Would children sit through this? I doubt it. Do adults really need more nostalgia? We do not. 134 minutes later and all I can think is, “Joe Strummer sure would be rolling in his grave.”
I understand how foolish it is to expect authenticity from a big-budget Hollywood movie. But sincerity—goddamn, have we lost all grasp on sincerity now, too? Because Cruella is exactly the kind of soulless enterprise that reflects so much that is wrong with the way we make blockbusters these days. First: tedious over-explanation of certain character details, like their names, but little in the way of precise motivations. Second: lavish production design to lacquer over a paper-thin plot. Third: money spent on elements that will have you nod in recognition (this soundtrack, these costumes), rather than introduce you to something new. Fourth, and most irritatingly: how utterly perfunctory this all feels. It’s as if everyone here is checking off boxes on a predetermined list of directives.
Dalmatians show up: check! Emma Stone’s Cruella starts hitting people with her walking stick: check! A character coded as gay but not explicitly written as gay shows up so Disney can do the whole “We’re so inclusive!” thing all over again: check! Taken-advantage-of Black characters help the evil white lady along her way to self-actualization and immense wealth: check! There’s a whole subplot devoted to the question of whether Cruella actually skinned Dalmatians to make one of her signature couture pieces, but none of this feels coy, campy, or tongue-in-cheek. It feels like studio notes, and like a misunderstanding of what a villain actually is, and like a purposeful rebranding of Cruella from “evil lady who kills puppies” to “girl boss doing it for herself.” Thanks, I hate it.
The film begins with a young girl named Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), who lives with her loving, devoted mother in a small village in the UK. Estella has always been different—born with black hair on one side, white hair on the other; interested in fashion from when she was practically a toddler; and unwilling to accept bullying from her classmates. “Your name’s Estella, not Cruella,” her mother chastises her when Estella makes fun of the garment her mother has made, but otherwise, they get along. After a family tragedy, though, Estella ends up on the streets of London, where she meets a couple of fellow orphans. A decade later, Estella (Stone), Jasper (Joel Fry), and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) are a trio of thieves running scams and heists all over London to support themselves, with Estella designing and creating their costumes.
“I felt I was meant for more than this, that my mom would have wanted more for me. I just didn’t know what,” Stone muses in the film’s narration. Then, an opportunity presents itself when Jasper gets Estella a job at the iconic London department store Liberty. Sure, she’s cleaning bathrooms, but it’s a foot in the door that launches her into the orbit of the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a well-respected couture designer who hires Estella to work for her. Once the two women are brought together, screenwriters Dana Fox (of Isn’t It Romantic) and Tony McNamara (of The Great and The Favourite) add in even more backstory then points these stylish women towards each other. Estella wants to take over the Baroness’s fashion empire. To do so, she molds herself into Cruella.
Estella is kind and supportive to Jasper and Horace, a true comrade in arms; Cruella is bossy, dismissive, and mean. Estella was creative and inspired; Cruella is motivated by revenge. As Cruella stages more and more elaborate attacks on the Baroness’s balls, galas, and fashion shows, crashing the events and showing off her own upstaging outfits of tulle, satin, and lace, Cruella tries to tie her guerrilla tactics to the increasing punk vibe of the 1970s. Who will end up on top of this battle for power and cultural dominance? And at what point will nice-girl Estella finally give herself over to bad-girl Cruella?
To give credit where it is very much due, costume designer Jenny Beavan does some really gorgeous work here. Estella’s transformation into Cruella is all hard black leather—woven, embossed, and textured jackets and dresses—and the gowns Estella designs for the Baroness are summarily exquisite. One gown made out of iridescent gunmetal fabric gleams like a firefly, while another is painstakingly covered in gorgeous gold beads. But do we ever get a sense of what either Estella’s, Cruella’s, or the Baroness’s design aesthetic is, or what drives their ideology? We do not. Instead, does the film make some broad gestures toward “punk stuff” with Cruella’s looks incorporating chunky chains and buckles? Yes, there’s a real “Hot Topic in the aughts” atmosphere here. Yet any kind of inspiration, from either woman, is utterly bereft.
The entire film is plagued by that shallowness. Fry and Hauser do a good job as the henchmen who can’t quit Cruella—especially the latter, who said in an interview that he was trying to emulate Bob Hoskins in Hook with his performance. It worked, and his bemused delivery is often a delight. But why stick with this woman who abuses and berates them? Thompson has a few good moments as the incredibly condescending Baroness, including one moment where she has to ask a character to clarify the person they’re accusing her of killing; there have been so many that she can’t keep track. But Thompson doing a version of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada is not a particularly unique thing.
That leaves us with Stone as Cruella, who is trying so hard with her accent, her poses, her sneer, and yet none of it quite clicks because the core of this character does not exist. She’s grieving in one moment, and then power-hungry the next; eager-to-please in one second, and then horrendously conniving. Stone captures every single emotion, but altogether, this portrait of Cruella is, in the words of Cher Horowitz, a Monet. Hold it up to any kind of scrutiny and the recklessness that primarily compels the character—which the movie tries to explain away with mental illness; yikes—reflects director Craig Gillespie’s preference for spectacle over substance.
I’m not trying to say Cruella needed to be longer; over two hours is plenty. Nor am I saying that Stone was miscast, even if I think her performance could have used some of the toxicity she channeled in The Favourite. But I think the core flaw of Cruella is in how much this film tells us without showing us. Stone’s narration is a distracting component of the film that signals mistrust in its audience. At one point, Stone describes a situation clearly happening on screen with the phrase “As you can see.” Yes, we can! Let us see it! Or the way the film handles the central idea of fashion—with flat fetishization instead of a description of what fashion does, signifies, or reflects about a society. Or the recurring use of popular songs and covers from the likes of Nina Simone, Led Zeppelin, The Zombies, The Clash, and The Rolling Stones to serve as background noise for practically every single scene. It’s like the film poking us with a muttered, “Remember, we’re in the 1970s! It’s the 1970s! That decade, with these artists!”
Cruella is a movie that yells “Look at this!” but forgets to make clear why any of this should resonate or matter. Despite what Cruella’s thrift store owner friend Artie (John McCrea) would have us believe, “normal” is not “the cruelest insult of them all.” Boring is. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what suits Cruella best.
Cruella comes out on May 28 in theaters and on Disney+ for an additional $29.99 rental fee.
Image sources (in order of posting): Disney, Disney