Cruella Movie Review
With Cruella, Disney aims to do something it has largely failed to do with most of its other recent live-action properties: be good.
Though there have been some exceptions (Cinderella, The Jungle Book), Disney’s live-action adaptations, prequels, and sequels have been middling at best, offensively awful at worst. And the last time it toyed with giving a villain a sympathetic back story, we got Maleficent, and not even Adolf Hitler would deserve being locked in a room and forced to watch that one over and over again.
Amazingly, and thankfully, Disney allowed director Craig Gillepsie (I, Tonya) to go a little dark with this one. Cruella has some snarl to it and plenty of Emma Stone’s smirk, and that’s more than enough to prove effective. It may not be riveting cinema, but it’s popcorn cinema with some half-sharpened teeth.
Stone is superbly cast as the title character, a rebel with a fashion cause who revels in the opportunity to slink and slank her way through a live-action world that at once feels grounded and simultaneously drawn from Disney films of old, where villains did bad, naughty things. Of course, as naughty as she is, she isn’t the villain here--that honor belongs to Emma Thompson, who plays the evil, cunning, and narcissistic The Baroness.
Cruella often plays like The Devil Wears Prada, but with more murder and ill intent. The fact that a modern day Disney movie--though PG-13-rated, it is a prequel to the beloved and still highly entertaining animated picture 101 Dalmatians (I remember liking the live-action remake with Glenn Close, too, but haven’t seen it since it was released)--involves two lead characters fully committed to murdering the other is a triumph on its own, but it’s a decent little movie in its own right.
Gillespie injects Cruella with style and character, and while it gets tugged, dragged, and pulled through the Mouse House’s corporate ringer to some degree, it feels like a product more independently crafted than most of Disney’s other recent properties combined.
What holds it back, though, is that it is indeed a Disney film, and one that despite its ratings will pull in young moviegoers due to curious parents. Earlier in this review I referred to Cruella as having half-sharpened teeth; there’s enough pointy edges to leave a mark, but its bite rarely draws blood. It’s sort of dark, sort of crafty, but it’s unable to fully commit. In the end, it’s sort of good, but far from great.
Lost on Gillepsie is that Cruella is supposed to eventually become the awful, twisted, and hideous antagonist known to most everyone; he paints her as the hero even if she is to ultimately repeat the sins of the woman she hates. Exploration of this mirrored existence is too complex for a movie like this, however, and Gillepsie is handicapped by the “make the villain a hero” conceit.
Cruella benefits from some unexpected leniency from the Disney corporation and a performance by Emma Stone that elevates the material further; it snarls and snaps in fulfilling ways, though ultimately offers more bark than savory, dog-chewed bite. It’s not a great movie, but it does what Disney has so frequently failed to do in recent years: be good. And that’s enough.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.