“Cruella” is a movie that doesn’t need to exist, but somehow works in spite of this obvious fact.
As Disney continues to pile up its live action remakes, a pattern is starting to emerge. There are those movies that seem to be complete remakes, down to the very shots they painstakingly recreate in live action. I’m looking at you, “The Lion King.” And then there are those that simply go off the rails and offer something completely different. Enter, “Cruella.”
The villainess of “101 Dalmatians” did not need an origin story. Nor did she need any sort of characterization rehabilitation. She’s a crazed fashion designer who really hates dogs and really loves fur coats. What more is there to understand? But Disney’s latest live action remake offers something of a justification — no more flimsy than the attempted humanization of the titular DC comic book villain in “Joker” — of her character and crafts a villain origin story that, while not necessarily amazing, is still somewhat entertaining — thanks almost entirely to the performances of its two leads.
Emma Stone takes a step out of her comfort zone for the titular role of Cruella de Vil. She chews scenery like no other in this movie, evoking famous over-the-top performances as Jack Nicholson in “Batman” or Nicolas Cage in almost any movie in the last decade. She embraces the ludicrous nature of a character defined by the falling death of her mother as the result of a pair of attack dalmatians. Yes, that is the source of Cruella’s hatred of dalmatians. It’s perhaps the most ridiculous scene in a ridiculous movie comprised of ridiculous scenes.
Stone’s Cruella locks horns with Emma Thompson’s Baroness von Hellman, brutally cruel fashion legend in 1970s London. Their feud traces its origins to the death of Cruella’s mother, though the Baroness doesn’t realize it at first. It quickly unfolds in a conflict reminiscent of “The Devil Wears Prada” contrast with “Joker” that culminates with more dalmatian action against the backdrop of an over-designed steampunk London brought to life with copious amounts of CG.
The story is the weakest part of “Cruella.” It sets out to explain — if not to justify — why Cruella de Vil (real name Estella) becomes the person that she is by the time of “101 Dalmatians.” The movie tries to frame this journey with Disney’s trademark female empowerment that was used to equally timid effect in “Maleficent” and its sequel. But it never quite works. Cruella’s character only works as a sympathetic character when contrast with the Baroness as a foil.
Thankfully, Stone and Thompson throw everything they have into their respective roles. The two put on an acting clinic in scenery chewing and over-the-top character performances that just outshine everyone around them. Strip away the overproduced sets, the amazing costume work and the flacid supporting cast, and “Cruella” would still succeed on its pair of amazing performances that seem solely directed at trying to one up the other.
“Cruella” is set within the fashion world of 1970s and the costumes and production design are immaculate. While it uses way too much CG, London looks like a character unto itself. It’s almost as if this movie is set in some alternative past with how pervasive this version of London’s aesthetics are throughout the film. Not since Tim Burton’s “Batman” has an urban setting commanded so much visual life of its own.
And the costumes are equally beautiful. Cruella’s wardrobe expands and diversifies as she descends into madness over the course of the film. Her clothes reflect her state-of-mind and become even more beautiful and frantic as the film unfolds. Equally, the Baroness’ wardrobe is just as impressive. It’s still early, but “Cruella” should be on the shortlist for costume design at the next Academy Awards.
“Cruella” is a visual feast that fails as a story. It features a post credits stinger (because almost all movies need those these days) that sets up the future of the “101 Dalmatians” franchise, which, ironically, was the first Disney franchise to receive a live action remake with Glen Close as Cruella de Vil. Those who saw those two movies will not recognize Cruella here, but it’s a completely different take on the character — a take that works, somewhat, not because of a strong base or vision, but because of a great performance from its actress. Otherwise, at well more than two hours in length, “Cruella” is simply not worth your time.
“Cruella” is available now in theaters, or for $30 on Disney+ Premier Access.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton and writes a weekly review for The Lawton Constitution.