It says something about our times that a story that once featured cute, heroic dalmatians now focuses on their adversary, a larger-than-life villain (just as Sleeping Beauty has morphed into the saga of Maleficent). Parents should note the PG-13 rating on Cruella, which is earned through a series of nightmarish scenes involving death, abandonment, and revenge. Some children may absorb all of this as make-believe but others might have a different reaction to so much dark matter. I fall into the latter category; I was aghast.
In time, I made my peace with the movie, which is long but not dull. The story of an odd little girl (think Wednesday Addams) who’s been wronged and seeks revenge on the woman who ruined her life. Its sprawling screenplay is credited to four people altogether, but the real attraction won’t be found in a script: the elegant, expressive costumes by Jenny Beavan and imaginative production design by Fiona Crombie. Some of the result is wickedly clever while much of it is simply mean-spirited. It takes more than one hour to reach the turning point where orphaned Estella (Emma Stone) assumes a new identity as the devilish Cruella. In this guise she plans to infiltrate the world of high fashion and destroy an imperious designer known as The Baroness, played in high-camp fashion by the peerless Emma Thompson.
Grownups in the audience will no doubt respond to her sly performance, as well as the use of anthemic pop songs like Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and Nina Simone’s rendition of “Feeling Good.” Like so much else in Cruella it will sail over the heads of its younger viewers. Perhaps that’s just as well.
Providing welcome comic relief are two bumbling burglars named Horace and Jasper (in a nod to the original Walt Disney animated feature), nicely played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. They bring a touch of humanity to the story as well as humor. Stone gives her all as the fiendish title character, who is hard to root for as she takes on the role of disruptor—for reasons we think we know until the denouement finally reveals all.
After putting us through the wringer, Cruella leaves us with an inexcusably weak punchline and postscript. Surely one of the writers or director Craig Gillespie could have come up with something better as a takeaway.
Film buffs will enjoy a brief homage to Tallulah Bankhead, who was an inspiration for Cruella de Vil way back when. (Betty Lou Gerson, who provided the character’s voice in the animated cartoon, was a busy radio actress who sounded a lot like the colorful Miss B.) As inside jokes go it isn’t bad, but like everything else about the picture it’s hardly worth all the bother.