This flashy prequel for the ‘101 Dalmatians villainess stars Emma Stone and Emma Thompson
Dir: Craig Gillespie. US. 2021. 134 mins.
An inelegant mix of The Devil Wears Prada and Joker, Cruella presents a dark origin story for the 101 Dalmatians villain, boasting fabulous costumes but otherwise lacking a distinctive style. Emma Stone brings sufficient swagger to the role of a plucky orphan destined to become the calculating Cruella de Vil, mixing it up with Emma Thompson’s ultra-snooty fashion mogul who holds the key to her tragic past. But while there’s energy and edge to the picture, Cruella feels stitched together from different influences in order to justify a rather blatant attempt to renew interest in a moribund property.
Every creative choice seems designed to pay homage to the existing intellectual property and ensure that the audience will be on board for sequels
Opening in the UK and US on May 28, while simultaneously becoming available on Disney+, the film radiates a punk-ish spirit that caters to younger viewers who may not know the live-action 101 Dalmatians films which starred Glenn Close about 25 years ago — to say nothing of the 1961 animated original. Stone and Thompson’s star power should entice, as will the picture’s fetching look.
When we meet Estella (Stone), she lives in London in the 1970s with her friends Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), who took her in as a girl after the death of her single mother. They survive as petty thieves, but Estella dreams of becoming a fashion designer, realising her wish when she lands a job working for the influential and intimidating Baroness (Thompson). But after realising that the Baroness was responsible for her mother’s untimely end, Estella plots to take vengeance on this fashion icon.
Director Craig Gillespie’s last film was I, Tonya, which proves to be an unlikely companion piece to Cruella, another tale of two women of different generations pitted against each another. Estella’s initial excitement about working for the Baroness allows Stone to display the same pure-hearted exuberance that won her an Oscar for La La Land, but as the character begins to understand the cutthroat nature of the Baroness’ world, the actress slowly starts to recall the sly cunning that marked her performance in The Favourite. (Notably, The Favourite cowriter Tony McNamara is one of Cruella’s credited screenwriters.)
There are no surprises regarding the outcome of Cruella — the question is merely how Estella becomes the Cruella de Vil of the earlier films, which were adapted from Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel. Stone capably sells that transformation, hinting at the menacing streak which lurks within the young woman, but there’s nothing particularly startling in her metamorphosis. Cruella never gets as intense as a film like Joker or Venom — although character deaths are central to the plot — but still, audiences have grown familiar with these kinds of twisted origin stories. As a result, Stone’s cocky strut and tart line deliveries start to feel predictable.
In keeping with its high-fashion milieu, the film cuts a dashing figure. Costume designer Jenny Beavan dresses Estella in glamorous black ensembles, while the Baroness is resplendent in grande-dame gowns. With the assistance of production designer Fiona Crombie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, Gillespie conceives Cruella almost like a heist film, with Estella and her friends hatching different elaborate ploys to embarrass the Baroness as she prepares to unveil her next much-anticipated collection. Like a superhero’s nemesis, Estella begins popping up in her Cruella disguise in public to torment the Baroness and attract the media, which is wowed by her stunning outfits that are far edgier than those of the Baroness.
Nicholas Britell’s operatic score adds grandeur to the final face-off between these two women, but on the whole the film suffers from the same issue that plagues many prequels, which is that its every creative choice seems designed to pay homage to the existing intellectual property and ensure that the audience will be on board for sequels. There are the obligatory references to essential franchise elements — for instance, we learn how Cruella’s complicated relationship with dalmatians began — and a tedious desire to “explain” the psychology of a colourful villain. If the fun of Close’s performance was that it required no backstory, Cruella labours to ground her exaggerated evil in dully “relatable” human behaviour.
As Estella’s foil, Thompson is enjoyably sniffy, luxuriating in the Baroness’ contemptuous manner. When the two actresses share the screen, their cutting back-and-forth remarks can be amusing, but the picture is so devoted to being an adrenalised action spectacle that it drowns out the leads’ interactions. Unfortunately, Cruella too easily adheres to what’s fashionable in modern event films — but aren’t the best designers the ones who aren’t cut from the same cloth?
Production companies: Marc Platt Productions, Gunn Films
Worldwide distribution: Disney
Producers: Andrew Gunn, Marc Platt, Kristin Burr
Screenplay: Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, story by Aline Brosh McKenna and Kelly Marcel & Steve Zissis, based upon the novel The One Hundred And One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
Production design: Fiona Crombie
Editing: Tatiana S. Riegel
Cinematography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Music: Nicholas Britell
Main cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong