Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 24, 2021)
60 years ago, 101 Dalmatians became an animated hit. 25 years ago, this led to a live-action remake that also did pretty well at the box office.
2021 goes down a different path via Cruella. Rather than retell the same 101 Dalmatians story, this one gives us an “origin story” for the main villain from those films.
As a child, Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) struggles to fit in with the other kids. However, her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) nurtures her creative side and encourages her.
This ends when Catherine dies under accidental circumstances and Estella becomes an orphan on the streets of London. There she meets fellow young outcasts Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald), so all three become pals and protectors.
As adults, Estella (Emma Stone), Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) continue to live hand to mouth on the streets, all while Estella hopes to break into the world of fashion. Though she starts at the bottom, eventually Estella comes to the attention of the Baroness (Emma Thompson), London’s pre-eminent designer.
Though Baroness initially seems to act as Estella’s mentor, a rift eventually occurs, and this inspires Estella to embrace an outrageous alter ego called “Cruella”. This leads to an ever-escalating competition with potentially violent repercussions.
When I first heard of Cruella, I assumed Disney took inspiration from 2019’s Joker. That hit offered another prequel that gave us the origins of a noted villain, so the connections felt clear.
As it happens, Cruella went into production before Joker made it to screens, so I guess I must chuck out that theory! Nonetheless, Cruella does give off a “me too” vibe, as its decision to bring a darker view of the usual Disney tale doesn’t seem especially original.
None of this dooms Cruella to failure, and the presence of a strong cast offers some optimism. With Stone and Thompson, we get Oscar-winning talent, and the supporting performers add to this luster.
Both Emmas do just fine in their roles, even if Stone seems far too old for the part. When we meet adult Estella, she should be early-mid-20s, whereas Stone was 31 when they shot the film.
Of course, Fry and Hauser should be about the same age, and they’re even older than Stone. The producers just hope the viewer won’t notice, and most probably won’t – just as most will fail to realize that the movie oddly uses lots of very 1960s songs such as “She’s a Rainbow” and “Time of the Season” for sequences that take place in mid 1970s.
Cruella clearly really really really wants to take place in the Swinging London of the mid-late 1960s – so why doesn’t it? I don’t know.
Actually, that’s not true, as I suspect the film gets set in the mid-1970s so it can allow fashions to embrace the Punk movement. If events come from 1966 or 1967, Cruella’s styles would differ.
That said, I feel like the filmmakers could’ve found plenty of outrageous designs within that era’s fashions. No, Cruella couldn’t form into the Punk goddess the movie prefers – and the song choices eventually reflect mid-late 1970s tunes as well - but it’d make more sense overall.
As noted, Cruella feels like it leans toward that Swinging London vibe, as we only occasionally get a sense of the mid-1970s. Most of the styles and production design choices remain more a reflection of the 1960s, and for those of us who do notice such decisions, this becomes a distraction.
Perhaps these inconsistencies stood out to me because the movie left me cold. Too slow, too uneventful and too long, Cruella never really threatens to build up the necessary head of steam.
I’m tempted to blame at least some of my boredom stemmed from my general lack of interest in the film’s basic concept. Have I ever wondered what made Cruella de Vil such an awful person?
Not that I can recall. Even if I had, however, Cruella creates an oddly unstimulating examination of her development.
We really do get a slow slog through the lead character’s emergence, and little of it seems especially compelling. Though our time with young Estella takes up only 15 minutes, it feels much longer, and the pace never picks up from there.
Outside of teases found in the character’s pre-teen days, the adult Cruella side of Estella doesn’t even hit the screen until almost 50 minutes into the film. This just seems too long to make the audience wait.
Cruella doesn’t even make much sense as a proper origin story – at least not if we want it to clearly connect to 101 Dalmatians. To avoid spoilers, I won’t spill beans, but it makes little sense that the Cruella at the end of this movie becomes the dog-skinning maniac of the 1961 or 1996 flicks.
Maybe someone could make an interesting version of Cruella de Vil’s origin story. If so, those people didn’t work on Cruella, as it becomes a dull, sluggish tale.
Footnote: a tag scene appears during the end credits.