What’s new, everyone? Let me ask you something. Have you ever found yourself wishing you could be immersed in the world of 70s London punk fashion, where you can then follow the origin story for a cruel dognapper who dreams of fashioning herself a coat of dog fur? No? Well, Disney didn’t listen to us. Nope, they gave us Cruella, the 101 Dalmatians prequel that follows Estella (Emma Stone), a young pickpocket who dyes her hair red to conceal the natural half-black, half-white look of her hair. Striving to make a name for herself in the London fashion scene, she lands the opportunity to do so after a chance encounter with impossibly imperious fashion designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), setting off a journey that will see Estella assuming the iconic identity of Cruella in what feels like an implicit and offensive usage of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, the upcoming Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan), Cruella was released in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access back on May 28 before coming out from behind the streaming paywall in August.
Coming off as a hodgepodge of The Devil Wears Prada, Joker, Maleficent, and Ocean’s 11, with a bit of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split thrown into the mix, Cruella deeply frustrates me with its narrative ambivalence. It can be impish and campy one minute, then somber and schmaltzy the next. Parts of it aim to fit into the family-friendly sparklebox that Disney wants to sell to its audiences, while other parts feel like they make valiant attempts to delve into the inherent darkness of Cruella’s character. Keep in mind that she does aspire to craft a dog coat for herself, yet this prequel insists on her being mainly a good guy.
Without giving away spoilers as to the specific plot points, Cruella hasn’t evolved into a dog murderer by the time that the credits start rolling. Her character has been sanitized for the sake of selling an unnecessary prequel and its accompanying merchandise, all of which has hauled in mountains of cash and bolstered the corporate synergy within Disney. Granted, I realize Cruella didn’t develop into a full-on villain in order to prolong her journey into the upcoming sequel (if you listen closely, you can hear the corporate synergy dumping sacks of money into Disney’s coffers). However, this movie needed to give us cues that would make us sit up and go, “Yep, this is the Cruella I know and hate.” Oddly enough, this happens somewhat in the middle of the plot, but the effect is countered by the rest of the movie wanting to portray her as a rebellious fashion underdog.
The movie’s tonal fluctuations make sense once you dig a little deeper into the writing crew behind it. The script was written by Tony McNamara, who wrote The Favourite, another flick in which Emma Stone puts on a British accent, and Dana Fox, whose romcom-heavy résumé includes The Wedding Date, What Happens in Vegas, Couples Retreat, How to Be Single, and Isn’t It Romantic. Then Story By credits were given to three people: Aline Brosh McKenna, who not only penned an early draft of Cruella but also wrote The Devil Wears Prada, explaining Cruella’s hyper-cutthroat view on the fashion sphere and the conspicuous similarities between the Baroness and Miranda Priestley; Steve Zissis, who was co-created HBO’s Togetherness with Jay and Mark Duplass; and Kelly Marcel, who wrote Saving Mr. Banks (a Disney flick about Walt Disney, P.L. Travers, and the creation of Mary Poppins—sure, that fits), Venom (the script is atrocious, according to what I’ve heard, so this is concerning), and—drumroll, please—Fifty Shades of Grey (🤬😭😤).
In addition, the dozens of needle drops are insufferable. I knew everyone was making fun of this part of the movie, but I didn’t truly realize how much it would get on my nerves until I underwent the experience for myself. When you see something like this take such a scattershot approach to playing “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, “One Way Or Another” by Blondie, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by The Clash, “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones, and other songs from a pop/rock/punk catalogue that runs up to the 70s, it helps you cherish the thoughtfulness that Guardians of the Galaxy and other similar content put into their superior soundtracks.
As much as I’ve been laying into the movie for its flaws, I did enjoy the times when the movie indulged in flamboyance, particularly as Estella adopts her Cruella persona to mastermind a string of outrageous fashion stunts. Props to costume designer Jenny Beavan, who won Oscars for A Room With a View and Mad Max: Fury Road, for all the eye-catching clothes—47 of which, out of the 277 costumes that she turned out for the main cast, were made for Cruella.
The cast is another element that I’m high on. Stone, who I’ve always found to be a compelling star, is a strong choice for the leading role, possessing devilish magnetism and over-the-top energy to spare. Thompson is equally fun to watch as the ridiculously ruthless Baroness, even when she goes so far as to test out a new taser on her put-upon staff. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser (the latter whom had his breakthrough performance in Gillespie’s I, Tonya) bring some extra charm to the table as Estella’s petty thief pals Jasper and Horace, respectively. Unlike any of the 101 Dalmatians flicks, though, they’re generally treated like Estella’s found family instead of lowly minions, except for the portions in which she takes on her Cruella identity and bullies the pair. Kirby Howell-Baptiste (while I’m glad the movie acknowledges the existence of Black people in 70s London, this is nonetheless a white-centric story that sidelines all of its POC), Emily Beecham, Mark Strong, John McCrea (admittedly, I’m not crazy about Disney being all “Look here, our first openly gay character!” with his role, used clothing shop proprietor Artie, who is never explicitly queer and falls into the stereotype of being presumably gay just because of his interest in fashion and his distinct resemblance to David Bowie), Kayvan Novak, and Jamie Demetriou (a top-notch casting pick as the douchebag department store owner) are all satisfying as the supporting roster.
Now, this movie was made on a budget of $100 million, which we need to double to $200 million to approximately cover the PR costs. At the time of this writing, it has grossed $86 million and $233 million at the domestic and worldwide box offices, respectively. This leaves a profit of $119 million. While a cut of this goes to the movie theaters, it’s debatable how much that amounts to when you consider all the money that was channeled directly to Disney via their streaming service’s Premier Access. This is why a Cruella sequel, which Gillespie and McNamara are expected to return for, is in the works. This is why Disney will never stop churning out cash grabs based off of their original IP, including the live-action reboot of The Little Mermaid starring Halle Bailey of Chloe x Halle, a Lion King prequel directed by Barry Jenkins, a live-action Snow White movie from Marc Webb, a live-action Pinocchio adaptation that will stream on Disney+ with Robert Zemeckis in the director’s chair, a sequel to the 2019 live-action Aladdin flick, a Disney+ spin-off movie that will follow Billy Magnussen’s Prince Anders, and Beauty and The Best, a Disney+ Beauty and The Beast prequel series based on the 2017 live-action movie that will have Luke Evans return as Gaston and Josh Gad as Le Fou. Honestly, the concept of Disney attempting to redeem a toxic misogynist appalls me much more than their attempt at redeeming a dog murderer.
Despite its shortcomings, Cruella boasts enough positive elements to avoid being a dud and get me interested in watching the sequel, but they’re not enough to deem it a winner. They’re certainly not enough to make it worthy of an audience score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you enjoyed reading this review, please check out the 2 Cents Critic podcast for its latest episode on Cruella.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 50/100