Cruella suffers from blockbuster grandiosity & constant classic rock needle-drops

Though ostensibly aimed at kids, Cruella is written and paced like a Zack Snyder movie.

It was only a matter of time before Disney got around to giving 101 Dalmatians a new live-action treatment. Of the classic Disney animated features, it remains one of the most iconic and easily identifiable. I’m not sure they’ll ever get to The Black Cauldron, say, but 101 Dalmatians seems like a given. There are, however, a couple of problems. The first is that the most iconic character of the film is its villain. This, in itself, isn’t necessarily the problem it seems like, since Disney has already proven they could do that with Maleficient. The bigger problem is that Cruella de Vil’s whole schtick is that she wants to kidnap and kill a bunch of dogs to make a coat out of them. That’s the fundamental premise of her whole character, and it works better as a looming cartoonish threat. There’s no way that a kids’ movie in 2021 will even hint at the possibility that its protagonist might do that — or so I thought.

Granted, Craig Gillespie’s Cruella has a few more good ideas than I had originally surmised, even if it takes a road that surprises no one in this day and age by turning a 79-minute animated film into a bloated 134-minute origin story that somehow manages to touch on The Devil Wears Prada, Joker, Ocean’s Eleven and Joe Wright’s misbegotten Pan along the way. Unlike The Lion King, it isn’t content in just replicating the original as closely as possible, but no matter what circuitous road it takes, Cruella winds up feeling just as perfunctory and generally pointless as the other Disney live-action films of recent years.

Estella de Vil grows up a pickpocketing street urchin on the streets of London after her mother (Emily Beechum) is killed falling off a cliff during a lavish party hosted by her boss, fashion designer the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella grows up thinking she’s responsible for her mother’s death, a guilt that follows her into her pickpocketing life with her two acolytes Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser). Estella has always dreamt of becoming a fashion designer but instead finds herself scrubbing floors for the Baroness when she gets drunk one night and vandalizes the window display of her store. The Baroness takes a liking to what she sees and hires Cruella, but revelations about the Baroness’s path send Estella into a tailspin, forcing her to come up with her fashionista alter-ego, Cruella, in order to go head-to-head with the Baroness. 

Though the marketing for Cruella seems to underscore the darkness and punkness of the thing, the actual movie isn’t markedly different in tone from something like Dumbo, which is to say it has elaborate set and costume design and a few instances of mild peril. What Cruella has that other Disney movies do not have is wall-to-wall classic rock needledrops, an ostensible nod to the film’s mid-’70s London setting that rapidly becomes like being stuck in a dive bar with a malfunctioning TouchTunes jukebox. The drops come fast and loose and mismatched, a flurry of recognizable riffs and melodies that reaches its nadir during a fashion show set to a performance of the Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog (get it?). 

This backdoor attempt to bring the annoying sheen of jukebox musicals to Cruella grates before too long, but it’s really the murderous blockbuster pacing of the thing that leaves the biggest impression. Cruella looks great from a production design standpoint. The costumes and sets are intricate and elaborate and great to look at if that’s your thing — but the problem is that the mind often wanders to other things as the film painstakingly unwraps a not-very-complicated plot with great pomp and circumstance. Though ostensibly aimed at kids, Cruella is written and paced like a Zack Snyder movie, its every crevasse filled with the paste of epicness that accompanies all blockbuster tentpoles these days.

There are decisions made here that suggest there’s somewhat less of a “filmmaking by investors’ board” vibe to Cruella’s inception than with previous films from the Disney sausage factory, but I’m not sure how well it all translates to the final product. The actors understand the cartoonish tone pretty well but the story is simply too flimsy for what the movie wants to do with it. Even at 134 minutes, Cruella represents more of a general idea of a Cruella movie rather than the real thing. ■

Cruella opens in Montreal theatres and is available on Disney+ (Premier Access) on Friday, May 28. Watch the trailer here:

Cruella, starring Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, directed by Craig Gillespie

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