Cruella was always going to be a difficult movie to get right. When you think of classic Disney villains, Cruella de Vil might not be one of the first ones that comes to mind. She is an iconic villain, but not quite as iconic to upstage other villainesses like Maleficent or Ursula. However, she is, without a doubt, the most unsympathetic. How in the world can you turn a woman who wants to kill 101 dogs into anything other than a monster? You really can’t and you shouldn’t try.
I’m reminded of StarKid Productions, a super niche musical theater troupe that only diehard musical theater fans may have heard of. Their most famous production was A Very Potter Musical, but they also did a parody of Wicked called Twisted. It centered around Jafar from Aladdin being a character who’s not really a mustache-twirling villain like his animated counterpart. In the title song of the show, we see a large number of Disney villains share how they’re not evil people because all of their motivations are grounded. See, they’re not bad! They’re misunderstood! Except for Cruella de Vil. Even those villains think she’s a psychopath for wanting to kill dogs.
It’s not hard to say that Disney had an uphill battle winning over audiences by making a movie centered on her. And they don’t really reach the mountaintop. They tried, by God they tried, but they couldn’t get all the way there.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Release Date: May 28, 2021 (Theatrical/Disney+)
If you were going into Cruella expecting to see an origin story for the evil fashion designer, then congratulations, that is exactly what you get here. Emma Stone plays Cruella de Vil as she slowly makes her way into the fashion world of 1970’s London. On her rise to fame, she encounters the Baroness, played by Emma Thomspon, a prestigious fashion designer who from the very first second she appears on-screen just screams villain. Without going into too much detail here, the movie has the two fashion designers compete against one another for fame and fortune with both sides becoming more extreme in eliminating their opponent.
Cruella takes a lot of its cues from previous Disney movies like Maleficent and struggles to really create an individual identity of its own for its central character. It certainly has style and spunk, befitting of its fashion and punk-inspired roots, but nothing that Cruella really does feels completely unique. Based on the little marketing I saw of the movie, the biggest comparison that I could read from the trailers was that this was going to be Disney’s Joker. Both movies center on, theoretically, irredeemable antagonists that we slowly but surely understand. We don’t excuse their actions, but we can see how society put them in the position that it did.
Cruella, however, never goes pushing into social commentary the way Joker attempted to. It wants to be a dark examination of its lead, but it doesn’t have anything to say of any real worth. Maybe the fashion industry is unforgiving, but that’s not the same as society is fundamentally broken and it’s constantly failing its citizens on a daily basis. There are times when Cruella looks and sounds like she belongs in a mid-2000s emo-punk band, though, for better or for worse. It’s kind of cute to actually see Disney try to be edgy and dark with this movie when that’s clearly not their modus operandi. It almost makes me want to pat Walt’s frozen head and give him a gold star for Disney’s first unambiguous edgelord movie, over a decade after that scene ended.
Her aesthetic and personality just DRIP that she would live and breathe Hot Topic and I can see quotes from the film being plastered all over t-shirts. Only, please don’t because the dialogue in this movie is so clunky it’s kind of funny. For some strange reason, this film is being marketed as a comedy and I would believe that based on how some of this dialogue is written. A rock through my car window would be more subtle than this movie is at times.
It doesn’t help that a lot of the performances here feel surface level. Emma Thompson’s Baroness comes across as your average snooty aristocrat, scoffing at the people beneath her and looking over them with haughty superiority. The movie describes her as a complete narcissist and she fits that bill, but she’s not engaging to watch. There’s nothing else to her character besides being the antagonist. I should hate her with all of my guts and want to see her be bested by Cruella, but instead, I’m left accepting that she’s the villain of the movie and that’s it. There’s nothing memorable about her in any of the scenes that she’s in.
I feel like my opinions on Cruella should be more extreme than they are, though. This feels like a movie that shouldn’t be middle of the road, and yet it is in numerous aspects. Everything that Cruella does I can think of at least five movies that tackle the same ideas better.
I will say that no matter how I look at it, the costuming in the movie is excellent. If you’re going to create a movie centered on the fashion industry that was the one area you need to get right and it easily does it. Cruella’s outfits look absolutely stellar and visually pop whenever Emma Stone is in them. While Emma Stone’s performance is also frequently hit or miss, at least she pulls off the look of a young Cruella de Vil.
Also of quality is, surprisingly, the soundtrack. I didn’t expect Cruella of all movies to have a soundtrack that’s firing on all cylinders, but the selections of songs chosen for the film are almost all great. From The Clash to Supertramp to ELO, each song perfectly fits the mood and tone that Gillespie wanted for each scene. As someone who loves classic rock and punk, especially of the British variety, this entire soundtrack was a joy to listen through.
But enjoying a movie visually and auditorily is one thing. A movie can survive by appeasing those two senses, but no matter how you slice it, the movie lives and dies by Cruella de Vil. Again, we’re expected to be rooting for a character who is mostly associated with the attempted murder of dogs, which is a shorthand for a clearly evil villain. How do you instantly show to the audience that a villain is truly despicable? You make them kick a puppy. Does Cruella de Vil, as a character, reach those depths of depravity? Is the movie asking too much to get me to feel for her?
To be honest, no, but that still doesn’t mean I like her or empathize with her. Like I said before, Joker depicted Arthur Fleck as a tragic character who was a product of the society that he lived in, but Cruella just comes off as mean because she’s mean, which isn’t interesting to watch. At least be over-the-top and ham it up, which Stone does at times with a passable British accent, but it’s never consistent enough to be reliably entertaining. Also, spending over two hours sitting through this movie feels like a big ask. I can’t quite figure out as of right now what could be reduced to lighten the runtime, but as it is the pace just drags the proceedings down significantly.
Despite all of that, I didn’t dislike my time with Cruella. It’s better than either Maleficent movie ever was and at least it has elements that it excels at. This feels like a total mixed bag of a film, one that I can easily see people enjoying and one I can see people disliking. I don’t get a sense that there will be extreme opinions on how people love or hate this movie, but this is a movie that I think you should still see and form your own opinion on it. Don’t confuse that though by saying you should spend $30 to see it on Disney+ Premier Access. It’s not worth that much in any reality and is instead probably something you should rent or wait the obligatory three months for until it’s free. There’s no rush to judge this movie for yourself.