The title character of Disney’s Cruella is Cruella de Vil, the notorious villainess from Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, by way of the 1961 Disney animated movie and its various remakes, sequels and spin-offs.
In the original animated classic, she’s a fur-clad, bag-of-bones, rich hag with a demonic touring car. She covets the puppies for their black-spotted white coats. They match Cruella’s own, weirdly yin-and-yang, half-black, half-white mop.
Cruella is to One Hundred and One Dalmatians (and the 1996 live-action remake 101 Dalmatians, where she’s grandly played by Glenn Close) what the horned sorceress Maleficent was to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty: The only truly memorable character.
So, as 2014’s Maleficent showcased Angelina Jolie in that part, this new original story offers a deluxe vehicle to Emma Stone.
In this telling, the character starts out simply as Estella. “Cruella” is a teasing nickname for the dark streak in her personality. Cast out of her private school, Estella is left homeless in Regent’s Park, then gradually rises through the world of London fashion of the 1960s and ’70s. She goes to work for the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an imperious designer, while at the same time developing her “Cruella” persona to get up to incognito mischief with her cronies Horace and Jasper (Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry, both appealing).
Give Disney its due: This lavish production is terrific to look at and to listen to. The soundtrack is a feast of gutsy, (mostly) ’60s- and ’70s-era pop hits. Both of the Emmas are in solid form—Stone with her half-sheepish little grins as she wreaks mayhem, Thompson with her unflappable slow burn—and both are costumed to dementedly chic grandeur.
The script, credited to a mob that includes Dana Fox and Aline Brosh McKenna, has ideas and gags that echo everything from The Devil Wears Prada to The Winter’s Tale to The Terminator, and is by no means lacking in wit or ingenious twists.
That said, Cruella, directed by the Australian Craig Gillespie of I, Tonya, is badly overlong, full of ideas that don’t have sufficient payoff for the weight that they add to the narrative.
Beyond that, it is, like Maleficent, like 2015’s Pan, like 2014’s Dracula Untold, arguably even like 2007’s Hannibal Rising and 2019’s Joker, one of those sympathy-for-the-devil backstories of an iconic evildoer, for whom audiences have developed an affection.
I’m not sure why it is that such revisionist sagas irk me, often at the same time that I’m enjoying them, why they bring out my inner Fox News commentator, judgmentally griping about creeping moral relativism in popular art. But they do.
After all, villains in real life don’t typically spring out of a vacuum. Past experiences do matter, and if a fictional ne’er-do-well inspires a fictional backstory, it’s a testament to how vividly drawn the character is.
That said, qualifying and quantifying the menace of characters like Cruella or Maleficent reduces their status as symbolic villains, boiling them down to the sum of the specific trauma and betrayals of their youth. It’s an impertinence to the scale of their villainy.
Cruella is a fairly enjoyable spectacle, overall, but, like Maleficent, it shrinks its title character a bit. These filmmakers know some good music, but they should have listened more closely to the lyrics of a lesser pop song: In the wise words of Huey Lewis, sometimes bad is bad.
Cruella plays at Harkins Tempe Marketplace, Harkins Arizona Mills, Harkins Chandler Fashion 20 and other multiplexes throughout the Valley and may be streamed on Disney+.