The fashions sizzle, but “Cruella,” Disney's live-action chronicle of the rise of its conniving, fur-obsessed diva, is mostly a fizzle.
The hot-ticket release, poised to kick off the 2021 summer season for the theme park crowds despite (or, for some curious moviegoers, because) of its unwarranted PG-13 rating, parades its slick production values and A-list headliners as if they were strutting down a Fashion Week catwalk. It's as hellbent on delivering a good time, and setting up a potential franchise, as novelist Dodie Smith's Machiavellian socialite was on ridding those adorable Dalmatian pups of their soft, polka dot coats.
But the hard-sell approach is all for naught, because as much as they posit their protagonist as a budding baddie, the creative team ultimately see her as a misunderstood malcontent who's the product of rotten luck and other people's misdeeds. Hardly the building blocks for a fearsome villain.
Working from a screenplay credited to Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, director Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya,” “Lars and the Real Girl”) leans heavily on star Emma Stone's voiceover narration as she reveals her childhood to have been a Dickensian tale of woe, complete with kind, ill-fated mom (Emily Beecham), an imposing millionaire who later assumes mentorship duties (Emma Thompson), and two street urchins who take the wayward girl under their wing when they spot her, abandoned and famished, in 1960s London.
The benevolent pickpockets, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, an American actor pulling a Dick Van Dyke), teach Estella, not yet Cruella, the tricks of the trade. Years pass, and Estella, like many Disney princesses before her, dreams of Something More: a brilliant career as a top fashion designer. Jasper, who clearly nurses an unrequited crush on his associate and flatmate, lands her a job at a renowned department store. Horace, meanwhile, is content with devising “angles” for their latest caper, but Jasper knows 'Ella deserves to get her foot in the door.
Starting on the ground floor means cleaning toilets and mopping floors, and that leads “Cruella” into indulging in its bizarre garbage motif. Gillespie seems to delight in placing Stone in situations where the Oscar winner gets dirty or, better yet, ends up covered in trash. It would be funny, maybe, if all the surfaces in production designer Fiona Crumbie's elaborate sets didn't feel like they'd been scrubbed spotless. You can almost smell the Lysol emanating from the rubbish on display.
One brash act of disobedience, manifested as a creative flourish borne out of frustration, catches the attention of the Baroness (Thompson), the U.K.'s most revered fashionista. Cold-blooded, cunning and staggeringly gifted, she comes across as Coco Chanel by way of Snow White's Queen Grimhilde. She doesn't need a magic mirror to know she is England's haute couture authority.
If the description sets off your déjà vu alarm, you're not imagining things. Sizable chunks of “Cruella” play like a Disneyfied reworking of “The Devil Wears Prada,” one that amps up the women's mentor/protégé bond before it explores an increasingly ambitious and bruising game of one-upmanship that stirs tarnished reputations and intricate heists into the mix, then adds a veneer of punk rock street cred that's more Hot Topic than Sid Vicious. (Aline Brosh McKenna, who adapted “Prada” for the screen, shares a story credit here.)
There's plenty of cloth to cut from in terms of the respect Estella and the Baroness feel for one another. Thompson, in particular, hits all the right, albeit unsubtle notes, and Stone matches her step by step. (Memo to Disney publicists tasked with the film's awards season campaign: “Cruella's” stars are co-leads, so don't even think about indulging in category fraud.) But just when the characters' fashion design chatter signals an intriguing shift from the source material, “Cruella” promptly returns to its previously scheduled programming: a warmed-over origin tale that trots out easy-to-catch elements from “101 Dalmatians” just so that impressionable audiences can point to the screen in recognition. It's too hemmed in by its intellectual property obligations.
So what else is there to say about yet another cashgrab that, unlike the good ones, never lets you forget you're watching a shiny trinket destined for instant consumption and just as rapidly dispose of? Only that, in this case, the potential was there for something that transcends its rigidly mapped out corporate-product checklist. De Vil deserved better.
I hit that last period key extra hard in my laptop keyboard. I pause for a moment. It should be fun to tear down yet another overproduced stumble from the Mouse Factory, but in this case, the disappointment weighs heavily on this disenchanted Disney fan. Oh, well. Time to wrap up this review.
Wait. Where did my computer go? All of a sudden, everything goes dark. What in Walt's name is happening?
I hear the sound of cutlery and piped-in Muzak renditions of Disney songs. I look at the breakfast spread before me. Bacon, sausage links and pancakes shaped like mouse ears. The sound of idle conversation snaps me out of my stupor, and I look up from my table at the Crystal Palace. At least, that's where I think I am.
“I'm surprised you invited us all here,” a woman of a certain age says.
Gray hair, formal wear and a gaze that could cut a diamond, or shatter a glass slipper. The Lady Tremaine sits at the head of a large table about 12 feet from mine. Next to her is the Fairy Godmother, dressed in her trademark cerulean cape and exuding that granny energy that reminds me of my dearly departed maternal abuela.
Here's where this rendezvous gets even stranger. Their table is filled... with villains. Only they're attempting not to call attention to themselves.
There's Captain Hook, dressed in red but missing his hat and best known appendage. He plays with his food using his good hand.
Opposite him, also in red, is the Queens of Hearts, voraciously devouring her meal. I almost gasp when I see who's sitting next to Judge Frollo. Lilac hair, deranged expression, a skirt the color of grape juice. Madam Mim, the shape-shifting witch from “The Sword in the Stone,” makes small talk with a disinterested Hades, his silvery blue flames almost imperceptible. There's an empty seat next to the god of the underworld.
This situation has suddenly gotten very dangerous. This dastardly group always got their comeuppance at the movies, but to see them all in one place, hmm, I dunno. Anything goes.
I look next to my plate and find the spiral notebook I used to scribble my disdain for “Cruella.” I grab it and open it to where I left off. I can't make out my chicken scrawl. I reach a blank page. No, not completely empty.
“Look to the entrance,” the note reads.
A sudden blast of wind, followed by the clacking of heels. I cover my face with the open notebook, but the voice is unmistakable.
“Hello, darlings! I hope you didn't have to wait too long,” Cruella said in a tone that sounds almost apologetic.
“As you see, we've started without you,” the Queen of Hearts replies, her booming voice causing my plate to vibrate for a second.
“Where is Maleficent? I was told she would be joining us,” says Cruella.
“Busy working on her next curse on Angelina Jolie,” Mim replies.
The Fairy Godmother speaks next.
“So, Cruella, I take it you've seen the new motion picture about you?”
I peek from the side of the notebook.
“Don't mention that disaster to me!” Cruella wails, her left arm raised in theatrical resignation.
“Well, it couldn't have been worse than Dustin Hoffman sounding like William F. Buckley when he played me,” sniffs Hook.
“It was ghastly. They cast that redhead from that flavorless fiasco they deign to call a musical. The nerve of these people,” says Cruella.
“I've read Emma Thompson is quite good,” the Lady Tremaine says before she takes a sip of her tea.
“She was bearable, I suppose, but this is not how any of this happened. Where is the cruelty? Where are the betrayals during my rise to the top? Where are the dead puppies? That glorious furrrrr. Has my legacy truly been reduced to this gaudy fashion war? Oh, it's too much to take,” she says.
“It sounds like a grave sin has been committed. I shall flagellate myself tonight,” says Frollo.
I need to leave. Now, before they see me.
Eeyore, or at least the cast member playing him, is headed our way.
“Take one more step, and I'll pin 30 tails all over your hide!” says Cruella.
Eeyore turns around and skulks off, more crestfallen than usual.
I refuse to believe I'm trapped. There must be a way out.
I look again at my plate and see a spoon teetering over the edge of the table. Uh-oh.
I reach over to grab it, but it's almost as if my arm is frozen in suspended animation. It lands with a loud clank.
They all look up. At me. Rats, I've been made.
“Well, well, well. It looks like someone has been eavesdropping on our little get-together,” says Hook. “But there is no plank to walk. What should we do with this impertinent busybody?
“I could just take him with me for all eternity,” suggests Hades.
“Too lenient a fate,” says Frollo. “I have read this lost soul's reprehensible writing. To the Palace of Justice with him.”
“I-I-I can explain,” I stammer. “One second I was writing my review, and then I end up h-.”
“Silence! You will stand trial for your impudence,” the Queen of Hearts bellows.
“Goodness! Will you look at the time? I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date,” I say and scamper off.
Mim blocks my way, her wand at the ready.
“What's the hurry, big boy? Should I turn him into a dog for you, Cruella? On second thought, a parrot would be more appropriate,” she purrs.
A wicked grin spreads across Cruella's face.
Mim's wand aims straight at my chest.
I duck. The bolt hits Piglet. Poor, defenseless Piglet.
When the smoke clears, a Dalmatian puppy whimpers in his place.
“I'd forgotten what whiners Dalmatians are,” sighs Cruella.
I make a run for it.
“Off with his head!” screams the Queen of Hearts.
I bolt out of the Crystal Palace and make my way to Main Street, U.S.A., only it's desolate, and night had fallen.
I look behind me, and the villains have all amassed into a big pink blob, their mouths screaming like banshees.
Then I hear the galloping, and I run faster, confident I know who's behind me.
The Headless Horseman grows closer and closer, and I seem to be running in place.
“This is a nightmare,” I say to myself.
Wait a minute. This IS a nightmare. I need to wake up, but how?
I feel the breath of the Headless Horseman's steed next to me and catch the glint of his sword before I dive into the store closest to me.
A “Cruella” display, filled with dolls and apparel, stands near the middle of the Emporium. The garish banality! The merchandise appears to be moving. Then children at the store begin to wail, a deafening cry of consumerist gluttony, as the shelves take on a life of their own and start inching toward me.
I reach out my hand in defense, only it's not a hand anymore, but a dog's claw. My forearm is now covered in white fur. Black dots begin to form, and my scream comes out as a yelp, as I feel the bones in my face crack and acquire canine features.
As the walls of the Emporium start to crumble on top of me, I let out a guttural howl. Aooooo!
I howl into the side of my laptop. It's the middle of the night, home sweet home. I breathe a sigh of relief.
To the left of the computer is my notebook. I open it. Chicken scrawl, but I can actually make out some of it. I'm back.
I look at the laptop screen. “De Vil deserved better” is the last thing I wrote.
A question pops into my head. Why does Disney sees fit to domesticate the very figures that give their classic movies their bite?
Then I hear her voice, a whisper in my right ear.
“Because it's one less threat for them to worry about. Because they're turning a menace into a commodity. Ah, but there's one thing they can't ruin, darling: the way I live on in people's imaginations.”
When it comes to evil, the most nefarious Disney villains are mere cherubs when compared with the conglomerate that owns them. The machine is greedy, it stops at nothing to turn a profit, and it must be fed at all times.
“Cruella” makes a splash, all right, for all the wrong reasons. It's not quite as bad as the Ms. De Vil inside my head claims, but it's still very much an overinflated miss. There's a good movie caught in its jaws, trying to wrest free of its IP constrictions. In its misguided efforts to earn the viewer's sympathy for a character who never asked for it, it illustrates that when it comes to all things Disney, the Mouse always wins.
“Cruella” has sashayed into movie screens across South Florida, including Dolby Cinema engagements at AMC Aventura and AMC Sunset Place. It is also one of the films currently showing at the newly reopened Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale. It's also available on Disney Plus Premier Access for $29.99. Access to it requires a membership for the streaming service.