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.