Disney’s ‘Cruella’ desperately wants us to have sympathy for the devil, aiming for something like a Lady Joker. Alas, she comes up woefully short.
A few years back, they made the origin story for Batman villain the Joker, for some reason. A massive hit, it was not only a showcase of all-in, immersive acting from Joaquin Phoenix, but it was a very serious, almost depressingly real take for what is a comic book character.
Like most pop culture hits, it spawned any number of takes and parodies of the now-cliched ‘gritty antihero underdog story’ (while somehow missing how director Todd Phillips heavily mined Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, without apparently having understood either of them). What sprung to mind having seen the trailer for Disney’s 101 Dalmatians ‘origin story’ Cruella was that they looked to be selling it as Lady Joker. Which the world doesn’t need, but now has.
In the final product (in cinemas, also available on-demand via Disney+) is a film which doesn’t really know what it is. A prolonged opening act, replete with completely superfluous voice-over narration, shows where Cruella (Emma Stone) came from as a child – creative, unwilling to be tormented or bullied; she’s on the underside of the establishment, and when her mother meets an untimely end, finds her way into a life of Dickensian orphan crime in mid-60s London.
10 years later, she’s running petty scams with a pair of like-minded hoods (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser). Having secured an entry-level position as a cleaning lady at a London fashion house, Cruella’s window designs catch the eye of fashion doyen the Baroness (Emma Thompson), who takes her on board to design for her.
It’s with the Baroness that Cruella (or, Estella as she is known, sans makeup) begins to let her inner diva out, and starts a mini-revolt with Cruella emerging as some kind of heir-apparent in the London fashion scene … without actually producing anything of her own. The film becomes a story of catty one-upmanship in between car chases and seasonal balls, before the inevitable climax at a mansion atop a seaside cliff.
What emerges after two-and-a-quarter hours is a mishmash of some clever ideas sprinkled among some occasionally dreadful execution.
The film’s major set pieces, be they costumed spectacle, or car chases, look like the product of re-writes, harsh edits, or perhaps just director Craig Gillespie not having the first clue how to stage such things (more’s the pity, as he managed to make a very engaging black comedy out of I, Tonya in 2017). Cruella’s scene geography is terrible, sacrificing structure for noise and rapid cuts, and Gillespie joins the ranks of so many hackneyed directors who think that having a needle drop of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is anything but lazy overstatement when it comes to ID-ing a character as being “bad”.
Emma Stone, being the stunningly good comedic actress she is, and Emma Thompson vamping it up past 11 as the film’s villain (an odd situation, that: the film is about a villain, but she’s the protagonist – so the antagonist is also a villain; a villain’s villain…?) make the piece mostly watchable, as do the sets and costumes. But with a nonsensical final act which is palpably, laughably bad, the entire enterprise is lost.
It’s also maddeningly inconsistent: the film has five credited writers, and it shows. The Cruella character, a hissing villain in the 1961 Disney cartoon and its 1996 live-action remake, has a loving ‘family’ in her two sidekicks, util she dons the fright makeup and treats them appallingly (true to the character), only to then come around to treating them well again in the next scene after one of them gives her a talking to. She has conversations with her deceased mother at a Fountain in London’s Regent’s Park, but it’s not constructed well enough to really appreciate or justify its significance. Paul Walter Hauser, one of the better emerging American character actors, is distracting here while putting on what sounds like a Ray Winstone impression, lost among the film’s maddening inconsistencies, tonal shifts, and era-inappropriate dialogue (just one example: the Baroness makes frequent references to taking 9-minute ‘power naps’, a phrase not actually coined until the late 90s).
You can pencil in an easy win for Jenny Beavan for an Oscar for her costumes; this is good to see, for too often films are ignored come awards season simply because they’re not “good”.
Many viewers may be dazzled by the design, colour and busyness of Cruella, distracted by the fact that there’s nothing underneath it; it’s not a good story, not told particularly well. If ‘style over substance’ was a sub-genre, this would be the new standard-bearer, which will be manna from heaven for anyone who thought Moulin Rouge had even the first hint of merit beyond its glittery surface.