Though I grew up watching plenty of Disney films, somehow I barely remember the original animated movie of 101 Dalmatians. I also skipped the 1996 live-action version with Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil, who’d be enemy number one for PETA given her predilection for Dalmatian fur coat. Well, 25 years later we’ve got an origin story of how Cruella became the villain she’s known for, with Emma Stone in the title role. It’s not exactly an original idea to portray baddies in a sympathetic light, most recently we’ve got Joker, Harley Quinn, Maleficent, etc. Some even said on social media that Cruella was channeling Joker in the trailer. Another villain that comes to mind, given its relation to four-legged creatures, is Cheetah in the recent Wonder Woman sequel, who starts off as an awkward underdog with big ambitions.
The movie takes its not-so-sweet time establishing the backstory of our protagonist Estella all the way from her birth up until she’s 12-year-old (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) raised by her mom Catherine (Emily Beecham). She’s what you’d say a problematic kid, as Stone’s narration make sure we know Estella is unique and ‘sees the world differently than everyone else… which doesn’t sit well with some people.’ She gets bullied at the private school, which she won’t take lying down. As customary for villains with tragic past, the girl later gets expelled and also loses her mother during a glitzy party at a large mansion. I really think this exposition can be trimmed quite a bit as the movie doesn’t really begin until a decade later when Estella has grown up, fending for herself without a mother in 1970s London.
Once Estella’s in London, she ends up working a janitorial job at her dream workplace, the Liberty Shop. It’s where she meets Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an iconic fashion designer a la Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. The Baroness’ grand entrance is pretty fun and Thompson portrays her with aplomb. When the underdog finally gets noticed, thanks to a bout of drunkenness that brings out Estella’s inner fashion genius, one can’t help but rejoice for her.
Performance wise, I think both Emmas did a decent job in their respective roles. I enjoy the battle of wits between the boss from hell and her new apprentice, though the Baroness recognizes the special talents Estella has. Thompson can do cutthroat like nobody’s business, though Meryl Streep needn’t worry as I don’t think Hellman quite outshines Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. The dynamic plays out similar to how Miranda tortures the recent grad Andy who’s recently employed at the fashion magazine. Things gets even more intense when Estella realize just how cunning her boss can be, which in turn sets herself on a similar path. Even her two loyal buddies, petty amateur thieves Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) notice Estella’s getting meaner and well, more cruel. Cruella’s found a couple of other allies along her journey: vintage clothing store owner Artie (played with flamboyant perfection by John McCrea) and fashion journalist Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) whom she went to school with.
Emma Stone is quite good in the lead role, and she pulls off the glam rock vibe confidently. I don’t think she brought up the duality of the character too well however, she seems to relish in the aggressive, more vicious Cruella versus the meeker, kinder Estella. Naturally the movie wants to play out the villain-ness nature of the character, but it makes her shallow and superficial. The always reliable character actor Mark Strong actually has a bit more to do than the typical Baroness’ loyal butler. He’s akin to Alfred to Bruce Wayne in that he knows every secret of his boss, which is revealed in pivotal moment towards the end.
Stylistically, Cruella is a marvel. Gorgeous set pieces, stunning art decor and phenomenal costumes abound from start to finish. There are some cool scenes with great effects, such as the long tracking shot through the Liberty store and the fiery dress as Cruella wants to have her own grand entrance. Director Craig Gillespie and DP Nicolas Karakatsanis showcase Cruella’s fashion panache, as well as flair for the theatrics in some fun ways, especially the scene when her cohorts use a garbage truck to reveal her latest frock design featuring a 40-foot long train.
The film’s strength is definitely in the fashion itself, thanks to costume designer Jenny Beavan. The You could say the clothes are characters in their own right, which works as a storytelling device to depict Estella’s transformation to Cruella. I suppose for a movie about fashion designers one-upping each other, the fashion has to be memorable. The production design also does a fabulous job depicting the seventies style, though surely a large part of the budget goes into the song licensing… there so many iconic songs from Bee Gees, Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, David Bowie, etc., though I have to admit they aren’t always used well in the film.
To say the movie is style over substance is a gigantic understatement. At 2 hours 14 minute, despite some fun moments, it’s just overlong and bloated. Aside from the costume design, I don’t think Gillespie‘s storytelling is all that groundbreaking nor inventive. It’s nowhere near as daring as it’s fashion, perhaps the house of Mouse committee just wouldn’t allow a ‘family-friendly’ movie to go dark enough. What’s worse, it lacks the biting sense of humor that prevents it from being a rollicking good time. The finale blatantly teases for more Cruella in the future, but one unnecessary movie is already too many. I don’t think it’s worth investing another two hours of my life.