Cruella begins from a stupid premise and proceeds to do little more than inspire product development and contribute to the Dalmatians Easter egg canon.
A few minutes into Disney’s completely unasked-for live-action prequel Cruella, little Estella — one day to become animated arch-villain Cruella de Vil — witnesses her beloved mother being knocked off a cliff by a mean CGI dalmatian, setting her on the path to evil. Let’s be clear: this is a phenomenally stupid thing that at least a few dozen people had to agree was a good idea. Cruella might as well be called The Joker Wears Prada; it’s a misbegotten bit of hackwork that sops to contemporary formal and ideological sensibilities without being in the least bit modern or thoughtful, a completely useless bit of IP extension, and a pathetic star vehicle.
Ten-ish years after the dalmatian/cliff incident, a now-adult Estella (Emma Stone, 32, playing 18 or 20) is a street urchin yearning to break into the cutthroat world of fashion design, even as she maintains a side hustle as a professional pickpocket. It’s 1975 or thereabouts, and Estella — always the iconoclast, of course — seems destined to upend the stuffy British establishment, specifically that of iconic designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson), who, although Estella doesn’t know it yet, is the owner of the aforementioned killer dalmatian.
Much like last summer’s Mulan, Cruella clumsily slaps a coat of 2020s paint on an ancient cartoon. Estella pairs with a diverse cast comprised of childhood pal cut-purses (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), a budding journalist (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) — and eventual owner of 101 spotted dogs — her would-be husband (Kayvan Novak), and even a David Bowie copycat (John McCrea, explicitly coded queer but mostly a camp indicator/toy for our cute straight girl protagonist). All of this representation is more than welcome; how any of it fits as a springboard for a woman famous in pop culture for skinning dogs is never revealed.
During the course of plotting a jewel heist of The Baroness’ prized necklace, Estella mutates into Bowie-influenced performance piece/alter ego Cruella De Vil — part Katniss Everdeen, part Miranda Priestly, part Joker — for almost no reason other than the dictates of connecting this to the 101 Dalmatians IP. Of course, there’s very apparently no acknowledement of just what was going on in that classic animated work, a stark, strange object that remains one of Disney’s most inexplicably popular enigmas, based on a book by a noted anti-tax Tory, about a man who’d solved England’s economy and whose army of black and white pets did battle with Cruella, a merciless one-percenter and the ultimate conspicuous consumer. Here, the legendary dog-wearer is just a misunderstood proto-feminist out for revenge against a differently wildly successful, criminally-minded woman who’s willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, and in the process, I guess, lives long enough to see herself become the villain.
Director Craig Gillespie treats all of this as if it’s some model of progressive modernity and style, filling the soundtrack with endless contemporaneous needle drops like Nina Simone and the Stones, apparently under the delusion that these allegedly deep cuts reflect the tumultuous emotional state of its character and encroaching changes to the establishment, but really it’s a stupid form of fashionable virtue signaling. There are some legitimately tremendous costumes on display, but they’re lost in a hazy digital brown and teal smear. This doesn’t have anything to say about capitalism, or clothes, or women — or even revenge — that isn’t dictated either by what can be easily sold or what can tie in to the Dalmatians Easter egg canon, nor does it seem even remotely interested in doing anything but baking up some banal sympathy for a devil that is only made less terrifying — and maybe even less progressive — for having been so callously demystified.
You can catch Craig Gillespie’s Cruella in theaters and streaming on Disney+ beginning May 28.