Well, I’ve got egg on my face.
I wrote a blog entry a while back to jot down my preliminary thoughts regarding Cruella in particular and the current state of Disney live-action remakes as a whole. At the time, I speculated that Cruella was apparently made and marketed to ride on the coattails of Joker (2019) and Birds of Prey. Then a correspondent helpfully pointed out that Cruella wrapped production in November 2019, only a month after Joker came out. And of course Birds of Prey didn’t get released until 2020. As for the Harley Quinn animated TV show, that would’ve premiered right as Cruella wrapped.
Therefore, it’s more likely that Cruella the film is its own entity, while the trailer was selectively edited to ride the aforementioned coattails after the fact. However, considering that Margot Robbie made her debut turn as Harley Quinn in 2016 with Suicide Squad, I maintain that as a possible influence. In more ways than one.
See, the single greatest (not necessarily the best, mind you, but certainly the biggest) thing that Suicide Squad ever did was to rebrand Harley Quinn. In the immediate aftermath of that movie, right on through to the present day, freaking EVERYONE has seen at least one cosplayer or costume partier dressed up in red-and-blue pigtails and a “Daddy’s Lil Monster” shirt, swinging a baseball bat. For better or worse, the film effectively relaunched Harley Quinn as a marketable icon.
Which is exactly what the Disney live-action remakes have always ultimately been about. In hindsight, it’s blindingly obvious that Cruella was made for the specific purpose of inspiring a whole new generation of cosplayers to dress up like Emma Stone, consuming and imitating her image in all those glamorous outfits. If the movie does for Cruella de Vil what Suicide Squad did for Harley Quinn — and even if it accomplishes literally nothing else — that alone would be enough for Disney to recoup its production costs a hundred times over.
So now we have the movie, in which Estella (because of course “Cruella” wasn’t her given name) was born with her signature bicolor black-and-white hair scheme through some freak genetic quirk. We also witness the death of her mother (Catherine, played by Emily Beecham), contrived in such a way that the villainous Baroness (Emma Thompson), our protagonist herself, and a pack of dalmatians are all simultaneously responsible for the death of Cruella’s mother.
To repeat: That black-and-white hairstyle is revealed to be her natural hair color. And a pack of dalmatians killed Cruella’s mother. And Cruella herself is partially responsible. Literally ten minutes into this picture and we’ve already hit rock bottom. But if you really are that curious about where the film goes from here, read on.
Estella (played primarily by Emma Stone) ran away to London following the death of her mother. Shortly afterward, she fell in with a pair of homeless young pickpockets named Jasper and Horace (respectively played through most of the film by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser). The three of them — along with their two dogs, Buddy and Wink — proceed to a life of petty crime, with the help of various disguises designed and manufactured by Estella.
Let’s pause again here. First of all, this is an origin story for Cruella de Vil — you know, the woman whose whole deal is that she hates puppies to the point where she’ll kill them all just to dress herself in furs — and she’s assisted from start to finish by two loving canine companions. And she never turns on them or threatens them in any way at any point in the movie. Are we sure this is really the same character?
Secondly, this movie wants to establish Jasper and Horace as a pair of surrogate siblings to Cruella, a happy and supportive de facto family because they’ve only had each other to depend on for their entire lives. Even though it’s been firmly established in all prior media that Cruella berates and abuses Jasper and Horace as if they’re nothing more to her than a couple of expendable henchmen. Yes, the film tries to pivot from one to the other, in demonstration of Estella’s slide into cartoonish villainy, but the film never earns that pathos. Even worse, the film forces a half-baked redemption arc, struggling to maintain the theme of family even as Cruella continues to treat her surrogate brothers as incompetent minions. It doesn’t work.
Anyway, as a treat for Estella’s birthday, Jasper pulls some illegal shenanigans and gets her a job at the prestigious Liberty department store. The downside: She’s a janitor. As much as Estella wants a job designing clothes and curating the window displays, the elitist chauvinists running the place won’t even deign to speak with the cleaning lady. And in a further bit of ham-fisted symbolism, Estella has spent the past several years dyeing her naturally conspicuous hair in an effort to blend in.
Luckily, things change when Estella takes matters into her own hands and catches the attention of the Baroness herself. Estella finally has her dream job designing fashion for a leading force in the industry. Alas, the Baroness herself is a raging psychotic narcissist who — important reminder! — was at least partially responsible for the death of Estella’s mother. Thus Estella swears vengeance, promising to take everything the Baroness ever had and valued.
Because the Baroness is such an egomaniacal control freak, Estella knows that the one thing her boss can’t stand is to be upstaged at her own events. Trouble is, Estella can’t be the one to do that while also keeping her cover as a mild-mannered fashion designer. Thus Estella takes up her flamboyant alter-ego, trolling the Baroness and dominating gossip headlines as the devious and enigmatic Cruella.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), here established as Estella’s childhood friend and a journalist who keeps Cruella’s name in the headlines. We’ve also got Roger Dearly (Kayvan Novak), here established as an aspiring songwriter who works as a put-upon lawyer for the Baroness. Alas, the filmmakers’ efforts to keep the two involved fall totally limp, and the mid-credits stinger leading into the events of “101 Dalmations” doesn’t make a lick of sense.
(Side note: If you’re waiting for the iconic “Cruella De Vil” song by George Bruns and Mel Leven, you’ll have to wait until that mid-credits stinger.)
There’s also the matter of Artie (Jon McCrea), a flamboyant fashionista who serves as another accomplice to Cruella even though he might as well not even be in the movie at all. As for Mark Strong, the man plays a transparent plot device. Totally wasted.
But then we have Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, the two most imperative reasons to see this movie. The both of them are vamping it up like no tomorrow, both of them in a ruthless competition to see who can chew the most scenery. Personally, I give the edge to Thompson. The thing is, while both of these actors are clearly having fun and they’re both playing to the cheap seats for all it’s worth, Stone is inherently likeable. Emma Stone has always had an innate charm about her that no director could beat out of her with a tire iron. And that makes a huge difference between two actors who are ostensibly playing villains.
This was always going to be a huge problem with the movie, and there’s simply no getting around it. And it’s exactly the same problem that Joker (2019) had: The filmmakers want us to sympathize with this earlier version of a notorious villain while implicitly asking us to forget literally everything we know and love to hate about the selfsame villain. Cruella is a woman who will one day grow up to be a heartless maniac who kidnaps and murders puppies for the sake of her own vanity. Any attempt at making her sympathetic in spite of that comes off as tone-deaf, and any punches pulled only looks like cowardice.
And to be clear, it’s not like putting a new sympathetic spin on a famous villain can’t be done. Maleficent did it. “Wicked” did it. And the reason why those both worked is because they put in the time and effort to not only redefine the central villain, but the entire established story and the villain’s place within it. Compare that to Joker and Cruella, both of which only begin and end with the namesake character’s origin story, before all the nastiness we know by heart. That’s not enough.
So the filmmakers try their best to deflect from the puppy-killing angle, even though Cruella is best known for “101 Dalmations”, the story named after the very puppies she stole and tried to murder! Instead, the filmmakers want us to focus on the entrepreneurial angle. They want us to sympathize with a woman who had to lie and steal and cheat her way to the top because there’s no other way for a woman to get ahead in the patriarchy. Cruella — as with the Baroness before her — had to be a ruthless backstabbing bitch because it’s a ruthless backstabbing world and any male CEO who did the same thing would be lauded.
Except that’s utter bullcrap.
There’s a reason why Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are considered heroes while Lex Luthor and Norman Osborn are not. If a century of superhero media has taught us anything, it should be that wealth and power are nowhere near as important as what one chooses to do with it.
For another thing, as much as the film wants to come off as this huge feminist statement, it really isn’t. A central part of feminism is about celebrating all women, empowering and encouraging them to succeed. If this was a movie about women helping each other overcome an oppressive and ignorant patriarchy, that would indeed be a powerful feminist statement. But because this is a film about two women locking horns and attempting to destroy each other out of sheer vanity and greed, it’s exactly the opposite.
Oh, but Estella isn’t just trying to bring down the Baroness to advance her own station, she’s also doing it to avenge her fallen mother. Well, that only serves to dilute the earlier point about how Estella was transformed into something as cruel and deranged as the system she’s working in. Moreover, a central tenet of any decent revenge thriller is the notion of revenge as a self-destructive endeavor. It’s the risk of becoming a monster, the risk of dying or potentially worse, in the pursuit of monsters. Walt Disney Pictures cannot do a revenge thriller. The multinational conglomerate jealously protective of its own family-friendly image cannot possibly go as dark as any halfway decent revenge thriller demands, certainly not in one of their billion-dollar live-action remakes.
The film doesn’t work as a depiction of Cruella de Vil, because it jettisons or outright contradicts everything that ever made the character such a deeply satisfying hate sink. It doesn’t work as a sympathetic origin story, because that depends on cowardly cop-outs and melodramatic reveals that are laughable in the extreme. It wants to be a movie about family, but can’t put together a coherent statement on the topic. It wants to be a revenge movie, but the filmmakers weren’t willing to go anywhere near that dark.
With all of that being said, the movie does at least work as a kind of heist movie. It was genuinely satisfying to watch Cruella and company put together and carry out some intricate plan to rob and/or humiliate the Baroness, and quite a few of Cruella’s stunts are genuinely creative. But of course the real star here is in the costume and production design. There can be little doubt that most of the money and effort went into making sure this movie looked good, and it does indeed look phenomenal.
I was also nicely surprised to hear some neat little needle-drops in here, taking full advantage of the 1970s period setting. Though of course, some musical choices were far more overt than others — I doubt anyone would be surprised to hear that “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones is prominently featured. I might add that another prime spot was given to… “Smile” by Jimmy Durante.
Seriously, are we all 100 percent confident that Joker (2019) wasn’t a huge influence on this movie? Even in post? Because that seems to me like a clear giveaway.
Cruella doesn’t work as a cohesive story and it doesn’t earn the right to exist. Though it does at least have the nerve to try telling its own story instead of rehashing a prior one, it still falls into the recurring live-action Disney remake trap of trying to accomplish everything (read: pander to everyone) and succeed at nothing. The entire plot collapses because the filmmakers can’t commit to any one direction.
But then, this movie was doomed for obvious reasons from the get-go. It’s perfectly obvious that the film was made for purely superficial reasons and it was made to be enjoyed superficially. So if you want something brainless and beautiful, every bit as shallow as your typical CGI blockbuster but not as loud or as violent, here’s your ticket.