Back at the height of Disney’s live-action remake craze — sometime during those summer months that followed the massively successful billion-dollar run of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016) — the studio announced a profusion of projects that sounded scientifically designed to generate buzz: A Peter Pan spinoff starring Reese Witherspoon as Tinker Bell. An Aladdin (2019) prequel focusing on genies from the screenwriting pair behind Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and Friday the 13th (2009). A Cruella De Vil origin story starring Emma Stone. These purported projects commanded the conversation for 48 hours or so (as is often the case with any pop-culture news these days), then disappeared from the collective consciousness. Five years later, Cruella is the only entry in this slate of clickbait that has actually come to fruition. It’s every bit as dysfunctional as one would expect from a movie born of IP exploitation rather than a good idea.
Beginning with the birth of a black-and-white-haired baby and then leaping forward to a black-and-white-haired young girl, Cruella quickly establishes that its titular villain wasn’t always bad, just misunderstood. Given the name Estella at birth, the eventual dog-hunting antagonist of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) simply started out as a troublemaking schoolgirl who faced a remarkable amount of bullying for her skunkish look and her low-income status. After a tragic death results in her living on the streets of London, a now-grown Estella (Emma Stone) gets by as a petty thief aided by two lowly blokes named Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). As a trio, they don disguises and pull off several low-key heists about town. All the while, Estella dreams of one day working at luxury department store Liberty London as a fashion designer.
When Jasper scores her an entry-level job as a custodian at Liberty, Estella is overjoyed at first — she finally has a chance to prove her worth as a seamstress, even if she has to clean the bathrooms first. She soon realizes that the opportunity is not what she’d once thought, however: Her supervisor, Gerald (Jamie Demetriou), won’t even allow her to speak, let alone squeeze in a pitch about her hopes to move up in the store’s hierarchy. After a particularly hard day, Estelle goes on a drunken rampage after hours and wakes up in a vandalized window display she apparently sabotaged during her blackout. As it turns out, her carnage looks more like couture to the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a legendary figure in the London fashion scene who hires Estella on the spot. The more she gets to know the Baroness, the more appalled she is by her behavior — and the more she wishes to teach her a lesson in both design and decorum. Thus, her alter ego Cruella is unleashed.
All it takes is one look at Cruella’s cast and crew to pinpoint the exact moment when it was greenlit. It’s very much a product of its time in this way, even if that time is the not too distant past: Stone and Gillespie were both enjoying an influx of awards-season attention several years back — Stone for her leading roles in La La Land (2016) and Battle of the Sexes (2017) and Gillespie for helming the Tonya Harding biopic, I, Tonya (2017) — and the two were seemingly hand-picked from the Golden Globes audience for this film. It’s like some trophy-hungry game of Battleship: One row up and two seats over, and Cruella could have been helmed by Martin McDonagh and starred Jessica Chastain; two rows down and six seats over, and the job could’ve gone to Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan. Studios have always relied on this kind of poaching to get by, but it’s never felt as painfully obvious as it does here.
As it stands, Gillespie takes the basic framework of I, Tonya and applies it to the early life of Cruella (née Estella), right down to the near-constant barrage of needle drops and the timeline hopping from pivotal life event to pivotal life event, with little dramatic or emotional weight in between. Arguably, this is Gillespie’s alleged “signature style” on full display, with its slick camera movements and heavy voiceover work and reliance on the biggest musical hits of the period in place of an affecting score, but it isn’t his to claim. If it belongs to anyone, it’s Martin Scorsese — Gillespie co-opted GoodFellas (1990) for I, Tonya, and he’s done it again here with Cruella. It’s almost like Socrates’ allegory of the cave but taken a step further: a painting of a painting of a painting.
Granted, Gillespie’s hiring makes sense given his humorous take on the tragedy of Tonya Harding: I, Tonya was criticized by some for its crude disregard for the person at the center of the film, but making light of the main character’s misfortune is honestly the main thing that works in Cruella. After all, the only way to make this villain’s origin even remotely convincing is to play her ludicrous story for laughs. This is the tone for most of the film’s runtime, and it works about as well as it can. Paul Walter Hauser does an especially good job as Horace, for instance, even though what he’s been given to work with for the character never rises above one-dimensional comic relief. However, when the time comes to amp up the pathos — with the early on-screen death of a key figure in Cruella’s life, for example — the first instinct is, oddly, to laugh. The realization that it isn’t supposed to be funny comes after, but this only makes it funnier, somehow. It’s a tonal dissonance that that film never overcomes.
This is an all but indisputable thing when the film runs well over two hours, leaving the viewer with plenty of time to speculate which of the six credited writers contributed which parts of the dissonant screenplay. It’s part Joker (2019), part Ocean’s sequel, and part The Devil Wears Prada (2006), but it’s all chaos, to be sure. At this point, Scorsese’s critique of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — that “the closest [he] can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks” — extends far beyond comic-book films. When he said “it isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” the “it” might as well include live-action remakes like Cruella: They pick the audience up, take them for an easy ride on a fixed track, and drop them off at the same predictable endpoint every time. It might look fun from the outside, but it’s not worth the price of admission.
Cruella opens theatrically and will be available to rent from Disney+ Premier Access on May 28, 2021.