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by Peter Sobczynski

"Something Wicked-ish This Way Comes"
2 stars

While watching “Cruella,” any number of questions popped into my mind but the one that seemed the most urgent was also the most seemingly basic—who is this movie supposed to be for in the first place? On the one hand, despite the Disney name, it is not even remotely a film that is suitable for families with younger children, who are quite likely to find themselves alternating between feelings of terror and boredom. (Yes, it is rated PG-13 but my guess is that a lot of people will end up ignoring or overlooking that fact.) On the other hand, it is nowhere near the kind of diabolical creation that it might have been if the filmmakers and the studio had decided to take collective leaves of their senses and produce a version aimed squarely at a more adult-leaning audience. What has resulted is a peculiar little mess (despite the Brobdingnagian size of the production) that has been made with some degree of ambition and energy—though not nearly enough—but which is hobbled by the fact that its entire existence has been predicated not by the burning need to tell a particular story but by the fact that the two “Maleficent” films made hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars around the world and Disney was hoping to get lighting to strike a third time.

The “Maleficent” films, you will recall, built upon Disney’s recent habit of producing live-action versions of their classic animated features, by taking one of the most frightening characters in their entire canon—the evil grudge-holding queen who cast the somnambulistic spell on Sleeping Beauty—and devising a revisionist origin story that made her the ultimately heroic central character and went to great lengths to recontextualize their most infamous misdeeds into something more palatable. The end results were not especially interesting (other than the presence of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, I cannot recall a single element pertaining to either one of them) but once they proved to be so enormously successful at the box-office, people no doubt began scouring the Disney filmography to find other villains that could benefit from a similar treatment.

On the surface, selecting Cruella de Vil, the villainess of “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” who yearned to transform the adorable title creatures into a coat, might have sounded like a genius idea at first—since that film’s 1961, the character has gone on to become one of the studio’s most iconic villains, primarily because of her sheer evilness—but it is a concept that carries a number of enormous hurdles along with it. For one thing, would anyone out there actually want to see a movie that would inevitably end with the central character theoretically ready, willing and able to murder a bunch of dogs solely in the name of fashion? For another, if the filmmakers decided to soften and change things around to make her and her motivations more sympathetic, wouldn’t that essentially subvert the comically overscaled loathsomeness that made her such a hoot and horror in the first place? Finally, even if the film was able to come up with a story that met these challenges in an interesting manner, could it possibly be one that audiences would want to pay to see in the first place?

The film begins with Cruella taking us on a guided tour of her troubled childhood through the late 60s. Born Estella (played as a child by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) and bearing a shock of half-black/half-white hair, she tries to be a good girl for the sake of her loving single mother but her ferocious temper and willingness to fight back against any and all oppressors lands her in constant trouble and eventually gets her booted out of her snooty private school. Mom decides to relocate them to London—the best place for Estella to fulfill her dreams of one day being a fashion designer—but along the way makes a stop at a mysterious mansion as a gala party is going on. Things go haywire, Estella and her cute pet dog are chased by a trio of malevolent Dalmatians and mom winds up plunging off a cliff to her death.

Estella makes it on her own to London and is taken under two orphan boys, Horace and Jasper, and when the action picks up again in the mid-70s, we learn that Estella (Emma Stone), Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) have been working as a scam artist trio with Estella using her design talent to whip up costumes for their elaborate cons. Eventually, Estella’s design abilities catch the eye of the world-renowned fashion designer known as the Baroness (Emma Thompson) and she is hired as a clothing designer. The Baroness is a demanding monster, of course, but she does recognize Estella’s talent and Estella is happy to finally be living her lifelong dream. Eventually, she makes a couple of shocking discoveries about the Baroness and decides to get back at her by assuming the alter-ego identity of the anarchic Cruella and using her own facilities for fashion and overscaled revenge, both channelling the punk spirit that was taking over London at the time, to create a series of wild stunts and public scenes designed to destroy the Baroness and her empire while simultaneously making her the talk of the town.

I am not entirely sure what most people might have rightly expected to get from a film offering the origin story of Cruella DeVil but I am reasonably sure that a half-assed combination of “Working Girl,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and a watered-down take on “Joker” would not have been high on most lists. The trouble with the screenplay devised by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara is that it spends so much time trying to make Cruella—a character that, I remind you, is a woman that hated animals and who was best known for her plans to skin over a hundred dogs as a fashion statement—into an essentially likable character (she loves dogs and her mother, is loyal to her friends and only unleashes her furious temper and viciousness on those who thoroughly deserve it) that it takes away all the stuff that made her so memorable in the first place and fails to replace it with anything of particular note. Director Craig Gillespie tries to distract by throwing in such things as wildly staged depictions of Cruella’s antics and the increasingly loopy costumes sported by the two leads and while these elements do have their momentary pleasures, they fail to compensate for the utter meaninglessness of the entire endeavor.

One especially aggravating element on display is the array of largely inexplicable needle-drops on the soundtrack. Recall that much of the film is set during the punk rock era, a period that Cruella is meant to represent with her public provocations and her stance as the antithesis of the Baroness, the very epitome of establishment thinking. Therefore, you might think that the soundtrack for such a film might include a selection of punk music as a way of conveying that energy. Now I understand that Disney might blanch at the idea of putting the music of the Sex Pistols on one of their films but punk music from that era has long since assimilated into the mainstream to the point where it wouldn’t have seemed that outrageous. Instead, the soundtrack is clogged with classic tunes from the likes of Queen, ELO, the Ohio Players, Blondie, Supertramp and, God help us, The Doors, and while the songs may be good (aside from the Doors, of course), they have absolutely nothing to do with the milieu that the film is constantly paying lip service to throughout. The closest the soundtrack comes to authentic punk energy is The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and even that is about as mainstream and poppy as can be. (Hell, the cover of the original film’s hit song “Cruella DeVille” that The Replacements recorded conveyed more of an authentic punk spirit in 2 minutes and 12 seconds than the film does in any of its 135 minutes.)

“Cruella” does have some momentary pleasures, mostly conveyed through the energetic performances from Stone (despite her less-than-convincing British accent) and Thompson (who has a bit involving a Taser that was the one time during the film when I genuinely laughed), but none of them are enough to compensate for this otherwise hollow exercise in corporate synergy that is all the worse thanks to its mistaken belief that it has some kind of rebellious, mold-breaking spirit that it simply does not possess. It is just weird enough to ensure that it is not suitable for little kids (though it should be noted that there is no dog-skinning to be had here, real or implied) but not weird enough to make seem like anything other than just another product of corporate thinking run amok. Even a monster like Cruella—the [i]real[/i] Cruella—deserves better than the likes of “Cruella.”

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originally posted: 05/27/21 04:42:35
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Directed by
  Craig Gillespie

Written by
  Kelly Marcel
  Tony McNamara
  Steve Zissis

  Emma Stone

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