Catching Up With Cruella

Cruella (2021)
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writers: Dana Fox and Tony McNamara

Well, I finally caught up with the unholy mess that is Cruella. Honestly, it was pretty enjoyable despite spanning about five different genres. It was kind of like The Queen’s Gambit meets The Devil Wears Prada meets Project Runway meets The Empire Strikes Back with a splash of Dickens and a little bit of heist thrown in for good measure. Is that how it was pitched? Or did Disney just realize they had this really cool-looking villain and wanted to make a movie around her? That’s a great idea, except that Cruella, in this movie, isn’t really a villain. If I understood it correctly, she never even killed any puppies. That’s the whole point of Cruella! I remember being terrified of her as a child, but also, enthralled. She was always one of my favorite villains–that slinky dress, that cigarette holder. Now that I think about it, Emma Stone’s Cruella doesn’t even smoke. What the hell?

Cruella tries to have it both ways, giving Cruella (Emma Stone) a sympathetic backstory while also needing her to be irrationally ruthless and cold-hearted. Before she became her fabulous, evil self, Cruella was Estella, the orphaned daughter of a servant. Her mother was killed in an accident involving Dalmatians and a balcony with a balustrade that would not pass safety inspections. But seven-year-old Estella blames herself for her mother’s death. As a young woman Estella turns to a life of crime, and then apprentices herself to a high fashion executive-type, the Baroness (Emma Thompson), who ends up holding the secret to her past. In a convoluted act of revenge, Estella comes up with the alter ego of Cruella to get back at the Baroness, a transformation that seems to bring out Estella’s true, authentic self. It’s almost like she’s a superhero whose secret power is fashion. There’s also a necklace with a key to a box that contains important paperwork. It’s a lot.

This was all very entertaining, if nonsensical. My son loved the fast-paced editing and needle drops that were reminiscent of adult fare. The costumes and fashion references were also over-the-top in a good way. The two Emmas always looked great and there are several stunning party scenes. I also appreciated the career-making moment when Estella revives a boring department store window, a la Simon Doonan. That was probably the most authentic scene in the movie. But in general, the screenplay is very confused. It can’t how decide how evil Cruella actually is and to what extent her cruelty is related to her artistic ambitions and desire for power. It also seems a little timid about the murder that Estella clearly wants to commit. If it were real fairy tale and not a Disney movie, there would be more decisive action taken. Instead we have a screenplay that turns somersaults trying to convince kids that Cruella is not all that bad. Or maybe it’s just trying to justify a sequel? The ending certainly paves the way for one. Maybe this is bizarre, but I actually think a sequel could be good. With all the tiresome Estella backstory out of the way, perhaps part two would let Cruella be Cruella without apology.

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