Skip to main content

You’re the bravest rat I’ve ever known.


Well, this is a surprise. The last thing I expected at this point in the course of Disney’s dogged determination to piss on its legacy was a decent live-action take on an animated classic and a decent origins story to boot at that. Perhaps it needs to be put down to the old exception that proves the rule, but Cruella hits a bullseye in several key respects: performance, direction and (derivative) premise. If the movie wanders during its final act, is grossly overlong and also inherently morally questionable, well that’s simply symptomatic of these times. And Disney all over.

The Baroness: I’m intrigued, and that never happens.

Maybe it’s the influence of Tony McNamara (The Favourite – which I didn’t love, but was undeniably oddball), or just the eccentric posturing of the title character, but Cruella’s strongest suit is its attitude and withering sense of humour. Which would come to nothing were it not for Emma Stone inhabiting the character with the utmost infectious enthusiasm. Even when the movie isn’t operating at its best, she’s there to paper over the cracks with vampish energy. She duly makes Estella/Cruella sympathetic and/or un-so; it’s a delicious performance, both cartoonish and fully engaged beneath.

Estella: Don’t worry, we’re just getting started. There’s much more bad things coming, I promise.

But full credit is also due to director Craig Gillespie. Prior to his last movie I, Tonya, I’d have dismissed Gillespie as all flash and little acumen for material, but that unreliable narrator biopic showed him approaching the Tonya Harding story in an inventive and alert way, technical flourish in service to the telling, and it’s the same here. There’s a Burton-esque gothic nihilism to the palette (again, a sign of the times), but also a livelier, jauntier esprit de corps, with real verve to the visuals and editing.

John: It’s got a good beat.

The only area where I’d consistently find fault is the soundtrack, guilty of gorging itself on classics to the point of negative impact; they’re almost all readily recognisable tracks, much used elsewhere (the Stones, Nancy Sinatra, David Bowie, The Clash, Blondie, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Queen, ELO, The Zombies, Rose Royce: it’s exhausting). This is the opposite of Tarantino’s carefully curated and thoughtfully presented eclecticism. Rather, it comes across as Sounds of the Decades on shuffle. You have to do a pretty poor job for these tunes to synch badly to the images. Nicholas Brittell’s peppy, humorous score is great, though… when it gets a look in.

Horace: That dog is like a son to me.

If Stone and Gillespie lead the pack, yapping at their heels is a gem of a sidekick performance from Paul Walter Hauser as future full-evil Cruella henchman Horace (Joel Dry is also good as Jasper, but not nearly as indelible). Hauser’s masterstroke is patterning Horace on a note-perfect Bob Hoskins impression, one boosted by the actor’s essential likeability (and Horace’s affection for pooch Wink). Whenever there’s some business involving the character, usually featuring Wink, and usually relating to a heist or disruption of some description, Gillespie infuses the proceedings with an enviable sense of choreography and pace, indicative of a guiding sensibility largely absent from these Disney live-action affairs.

Cruella: They really would make fabulous coats.

Also in the cast is Mark Strong playing Mark Strong. But stoically kindly Mark Strong, as opposed to stoically evil Mark Strong, just so we’re clear on the gradation; he’s valet to chief villainess Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who is head of a fashion house and Estella’s boss. Thompson’s okay, but she can’t be as eccentric as Stone, and she’s walking in the footsteps of Meryl in a facsimile of that part. Also appearing is John McCrea as Artie, “the first original character in a live-action Disney film to be openly gay” (because Mouse House movies are now about drawing attention to sexuality, as opposed to their historic habit of bombarding malleable minds with subliminal messaging). What this actually means is that McCrea does a passably camp/eccentric Noel Fielding impression. If you’re wondering why they didn’t just get Fielding, he was probably too busy with Bake Offs and Big Fat Quizzes. You know, really creatively challenging stuff.

Estella: Really? You own alleys?
The Baroness: Alleys, designs, people, their souls. Check your employment contract.

If Gillespie lacks subtlety in certain areas, in others that’s on point. He has Jenny Beavan (Fury Road) doing the costumes, invariably designed to steal the Baroness’ thunder. A scheme that reaches its apotheosis when a garbage truck dumps a cartload of fabric at one end of a gala’s red carpet, only for Cruella to emerge from the shrouds, announce herself and then jump on the back of the truck as it speeds off, the fabric revealed as one extraordinarily long dress. There are cute references too, like the clip from Lifeboat (Tallulah Bankhead inspired Cruella). And also some decent plot gags (the moth dress) and less decent ones (did using laxatives on the Dalmatians not occur as a means to retrieving the necklace more speedily?) There’s an obligatory cheesy Solo moment when it comes to Cruella choosing her surname (“De Ville. I like that” intones Cruella on learning the make of car she has been using). It’s also pretty obvious that, rather than the Joker and despite concerns voiced by her “family” (yeah, I know) about her mindset, she’s Batman, complete with mysterious alter ego and uber-villain to take down. One who killed her parent. Except….

Estella: That psycho cannot be my mother.

Which leads us back to the screenplay front, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Aline Brosh McKenna penned an early draft, as she adapted The Devil Wars Prada. Which this is, if Anne Hathaway ended up bad, or on the road to it (Hathaway would have ruined this – see The Witches) Also in the script mix are Kelly Marcel (Venom) and Dana Fox (who shares the final screenplay credit with McNamara). The fashion house element was first incorporated into the Glenn Close live-action movie (Close has a producer credit), and it’s one that fits seamlessly. Cruella’s twist is that the evil Baroness is in fact Estella’s mother, which thematically conjures suggestions of elite bloodlines hidden away in mansions, sucking the fat of the land, and nature vs nurture; Cruella cannot escape her malign conditioning, be that through heredity or programming.

Cruella: I’d like to remind you that I’m doing this in heels.

I mention the latter intentionally, because inherent in the Cruella design – this is Disney, remember – is the duality theme. It comes with the two-tone hair style. Estella has the nice mum (Emily Beecham) and also the one who would have put her down. Obviously, sometimes a checkerboard is just a checkerboard, but when it ornately decorates the floor of the mansion Estella inherits, it’s more likely a reflection of occult themes and illuminati-prescribed base consciousness (duality patterns are commonly used as triggers for mind control victims).

Jasper: You can’t talk to us like that. We’re helping.

To what end? Indeed. Why should Disney be ritually and habitually playing the Hannibal Lecter card with their back catalogue of evil icons (and particularly female evil icons)? Why should bad be relabelled good? Could it be that those engaged in the act of destroying our world (or at any rate, decimating its population) ought to be respected and empathised with, for the sacrifice they made, er… for the ultimate good? Obviously, Disney has its eye on perpetuating the franchise, so Cruella has to pull back from being completely evil right this moment, thank you. But all the better as a means to fulfil Disney’s twisted brand of anti-heroine (Maleficent is just misunderstood, y’know? Same as Angie and her satanic rituals. How else was she to ensure her ascent of the Hollywood ladder?)

Jasper: I’m getting a little tired of Cruella.

If that’s Cruella’s sinister undertow, let’s not kid ourselves that Disney was ever ever-so wholesome. But what exactly are they thinking, making first Mulan and now this PG-13? It’s not like they’re still actively pumping out Touchstone fare. Perhaps they’re preparing the younglings for a yet harsher environment to come. Or perhaps they’re simply relying on parents to be complacently undiscerning when it comes to policing their nippers viewing. A Cruella sequel has been announced, and I doubt very much it will justify the effort (the fun with this movie is getting there, but spending another two-and-a-quarter hours, in which Cruella vacillates some more between going off the deep end and pulling back doesn’t sound especially gratifying). Curiously, Disney never went after Dodie Smith’s actual 101 Dalmatians sequel, The Starlight Barking. Possibly because it sounds like something out of Cats.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.