These live action Disney remakes aren’t going anywhere by the looks of it. Some of them have been shocking (“The Lion King”, “Dumbo”, any of the Tim Burton “Alice” disasters), some have been average (“Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin”) and some have actually been fantastic and properly demonstrated why remakes can work and warrant their production (“Maleficent”, “Cinderella”, “The Jungle Book”). Craig Gillespie’s 2021 “Cruella” probably fits somewhere in between the latter two categories; the story is fun for the most part, its visually stunning, the set pieces and costume design are engaging and clever, there are a few good plot twists and heist sequences, but as an origin story for the iconic character of Cruella De Vil, it really doesn’t do the job at all.
The film opens with the first of many erroneous narrations by Cruella (Emma Stone) telling us that “from the beginning she’s always made a statement, not everyone appreciated that”. And in case you couldn’t click that Cruella was different to the other kids, she handily tells the audience that “from an early age, I realised that I saw the world differently than everyone else”. Get it? Because she’s different. Born Estella, she gets her nickname from her mother who says to her while they’re sewing and Estella decides not to use the pattern… “Your name is Estella, not Cru-ella!” I sure hope someone patted themselves on the back for that. Estella is orphaned at a young age when her mother is killed by a mysterious assailant at a glamorous ball in the countryside, and she falls in with two young thieves who live in an abandoned warehouse and grift all over London. They grow up together, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) Oliver Twist-ing it all over the place but Estella longs to work in high fashion. Through a series of well timed ruses, Estella catches the eye of fashion legend “The Baroness” (Emma Thompson) and lands a job in her glamorous design house. Soon enough however, the sweet Estella is overcome by the devastatingly fabulous, ambitious and snarky persona of Cruella and a battle ensues between Cruella and the Baroness for the pinnacle of London fashion.
When the script isn’t trying desperately to leap through hoops to convince us that the characters in this film are really the same characters as in “101 Dalmations”, there’s a good little heist movie here. Not that it really makes any sense that Cruella De Vil got to where she was through a cross between intricate spy work and a well executed PR campaign, but its fun nonetheless. The scenes in which Cruella and her team ambush the Baroness’ public events with flashy and edgy expositions of Cruella’s new couture designs are seriously impressive. The costumes too deserve mention, I think as an audience member you only really notice the costumes in a film if they’re particularly good or particularly terrible, and these were sensational. These are the strongest elements of the film, with some genuinely impressive plot twists and some unbelievable heist sequences set to a fun score and some creative camera work. But as an origin story… boy it misses the mark badly.
I like Emma Stone as an actress; I think she’s funny and endearing, by far the best part of 2016’s “La La Land” and well deserving of her Oscar. Unfortunately here though, she’s been incredibly miscast. Its not that her performance is necessarily bad, its just that its not Cruella De Vil. Despite her best efforts, Stone comes across as far too wide eyed, awkward and naive to ever be properly considered a true villain. While I was watching her performance, I was remembering Glenn Close in the 1995 live action version of “101 Dalmations” and realising just how far Stone had missed the mark, portraying a villain closer to Miranda Priestly than Miss De Vil. Emma Thompson as the Baroness does a reasonable job, again nothing that we haven’t seen Meryl Streep or Bette Midler do before, with a haughty and icy demeanour and a whole lotta shoulder pads, but a reasonable job nonetheless.
The thing is, Cruella De Vil is evil. She’s not a scary corporate figure or passive aggressive matriarch, she’s properly evil, with a frenzied, manic laugh and prone to sudden and violent rages which totally consume her and flare up those wicked old eyes. All Stone has really taken from the character is the Patsy Stone-esque sort of voice, the high fashion and the black and white hair. Nothing in how she carried herself or spoke oozed with the arrogance, insanity, confidence and, well, cruelty that the character requires. Where is Cruella’s famous long cigarette? Why is Cruella De Vil, who is famous for wanting to skin and murder puppies for a designer coat, running around London with a terrier as her sidekick? And why are the two witless and incompetent conmen from “101 Dalmations” all of a sudden her childhood friends, even going so far as suggesting a romantic connection between her and Jasper? There’s not even anything to suggest why she becomes as despicable as she is in “101 Dalmations”; by the end of the film she’s still a hero, having vanquished the true villain and righted the wrongs with the friends she treated badly. When you compare the reasoning behind the character’s supposed transition to wickedness to say, the harrowing scene in “Maleficent” where Maleficent wakes up and realises that her wings had been stolen from her, it doesn’t even come close.
What Disney has done here is create an entertaining story which exists well enough independently, but is then compromised by trying to messily cram in tenuous and inorganic references to the “101 Dalmations” world in which these characters are supposed to inhabit. The story is surprisingly fun, but its not a story which fits the universe of Cruella De Vil and Emma Stone is not the actress who should have been taking it on.
By Jock Lehman