Of all the villains in Disney’s back catalogue that had yet to be dragged into the company’s post-Maleficent smorgasbord of live-action prequels, reboots, and remakes, Cruella de Vil was unlikely to be anyone’s first choice for a family blockbuster. An uncomplicated and gleefully nasty villain, she’s a wealthy, entitled monster with a penchant for puppy murder, all of which make her impossible to root for. It’s in the difficult but fundamental question of how to make her a heroine (or, at least, compelling protagonist) that Cruella ultimately comes undone, trying its hardest to make this iconic baddie into a quasi-feminist icon and instead dulling her edges for a nicely designed but hollow origin story.
From the first moment, director Craig Gillespie and writers Tony McNamara and Dana Fox rescind pretty much all of Cruella’s (played here by Emma Stone) defining character traits – now she’s a lovably scrappy orphan who grew up a poor street urchin and has a natural affinity with dogs. Even her future dalmatian hatred is given a justification, with her mother (Emily Beecham) killed by a dodgily rendered CG trio of the pooches, owned by evil fashion mogul The Baroness (Emma Thompson). And so a plot of revenge is set, with Cruella, alongside her partners-in-crime Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), getting a job at The Baroness’s fashion house in order to get access to her inner circle and bring her down.
Cruella’s fashion focus is easily the best choice it makes. Jenny Beavan’s costumes are glorious, every gown donned by Emmas Stone and Thompson a work of art, riffing on Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood to create the best blockbuster wardrobe since Black Panther or even Mad Max Fury Road (another Beavan masterclass). The hair and makeup work, on Stone in particular, is magnificent too – don’t be surprised when you see Cruella absolutely dominating these categories during next year’s awards season.
Yet, this brilliance doesn’t translate to any other department in Cruella. Murky lighting mars the cinematography and the VFX are downright laughable at points, while master composer Nicholas Britell’s score is constantly overwhelmed by a barrage of licensed tracks used in the most uninspired of ways. The plot itself is wildly overlong yet still somehow rushed, moved along by relentless peppy montages that never offer any insight into what makes this new version of Cruella tick, slowing down only for some unsatisfying twists.
Putting on her silliest British accent, Stone at least looks like she’s having fun, while Thompson makes for an entertaining antagonist, chewing the scenery with regal aplomb. Meanwhile, Gillespie does good work in filling out the supporting cast with beloved British comedy faces, from Jamie Demetriou as a hideously plummy department store manager to Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s John McCrea as scene-stealing fashion collector Artie, but they still only make for temporary distractions from just how thin the story is.
That Gillespie and McNamara can have gone from being behind two of the funniest and acidic yet sensitive portrayals of ‘Bad Women’ in recent years (I Tonya and The Favourite, respectively) to something so skin-deep and bland is remarkable, but indicative of the uncreative, paint-by-numbers approach of Disney to its back-catalogue remakes. There are plenty of ingredients in Cruella that should make it a delight – fabulous design, the brilliant Paul Walter Hauser doing a terrible Cockney accent, fun period details (look out for the gone-but-not-forgotten Golden Wonder brand of crisps) – but in trying to make Cruella a hero, it forgets the integral campy menace that made her such an icon to begin with. What’s left is an origin story without an identity, a sort of ‘girlboss’ version of 2019’s Joker (with which it even shares a needle drop of Jimmy Durante’s ‘Smile’) that never makes bold enough choices to measure up to either its inspirations or predecessors.