It’s not until its final moments that Cruella really starts to feel like a live-action Disney movie. What We Do In The Shadows star Kayvan Novak sits down at a piano in his shabby walk-up apartment, the camera pulling back to reveal a charmingly crooked mélange of London rooftops as he sings, “Cruella de Vil, Cruella de Vil, if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will,” to the Dalmatian that arrived at his doorstep that morning. Up to this point, any real connection between Cruella and 101 Dalmatians—including a penchant for dog fur coats—has been absent. The Cruella of Craig Gillespie’s origin story is an underdog, an iconoclast, and a trendsetter, with some intense mommy issues and a sense of pride in being both “brilliant and bad.” What she is not is a puppy killer.
Squaring the glamour of the character with audiences’ well-documented aversion to animal cruelty (see: the long-running website Does The Dog Die?) is the project of this decadent Dickensian mid-’70s fashion show. The film’s five-person screenwriting team—which includes both the co-creator of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and an Oscar-winning writer of The Favourite—goes about rehabilitating Cruella de Vil’s image, first through the most ludicrous self-mythologizing since we found out how Han Solo got his last name. It’s arguably a spoiler, so we’ll avoid details, but trust that the Cruella of the prequel has a reason for disliking Dalmatians that’s sure to produce a hearty snort from all but the most credulous viewers. Mostly, however, Cruella ignores the bad in favor of the brilliant, a more agreeable form of revisionism.
The plot crosses Oliver Twist with The Devil Wears Prada, beginning with the exact moment of Cruella’s birth and winding through a childhood marred by tragedy and redeemed by the kindness of two pickpockets, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). Eventually, the pair will be relegated to the role of bumbling henchmen. But they’re like brothers to the girl initially known as Estella (Emma Stone), landing her a job at an exclusive department store and encouraging her to follow her dream of becoming a fashion designer. Though she starts as a janitor, Estella soon snags the attention of the imperious Baroness (Emma Thompson), queen of the London fashion scene. The Baroness, it barely needs to be said, is both utterly fabulous and completely rotten—a cruel, spiteful boss who shamelessly takes credit for the creative work of others. That last character flaw is what leads Estella to remake herself as Cruella de Vil, an inscrutable fashion terrorist whose mission is to upstage the Baroness whenever possible.
Thankfully, early word that Cruella would be about the “birth of punk” was overblown. Although Estella/Cruella’s designs do incorporate safety pins, black leather, and the collage aesthetic synonymous with the Sex Pistols, the film’s fantasy version of London is a decades-spanning hodgepodge of cultural signifiers: You’ve got midcentury couture snobs, soot-stained Victorian orphans, androgynous glam rockers, a tiny dose of ’60s Swinging London, and, yes, an undercurrent of proto-punk that comes to the surface when Cruella and her minions stage an impromptu performance of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (get it?) with Cruella in what appears to be a Dalmatian-fur coat.
No, there isn’t a scene of Cruella de Vil cruising through Camden Town like Joaquin Phoenix at the end of Joker. But there’s still plenty to roll your eyes at. Gillespie also directed I, Tonya, whose style our own A.A. Dowd described as “diet Scorsese.” And those same impulses are present here, for a film that’s heavy on Steadicam shots—early on, the camera winds through a massive department store before landing on Estella, scrubbing floors in the basement—and needle drops. There are 37 pop tunes sprinkled throughout Cruella, culminating with the most obvious song you can think of for a character whose last name is de Vil and for whom we feel sympathy. The soundtrack includes the likes of The Zombies, Nancy Sinatra, David Bowie, The Clash, ELO, Rose Royce, Blondie, Doris Day, Suzi Quatro, Nina Simone, and Deep Purple, all tastefully chosen but not especially revelatory. Many of these songs have been used in other films, for one, and few are deep enough cuts to prompt much excitement from adult music lovers.
The track list would, however, make a good introductory course to popular music from approximately 1966 until 1981 for a curious young person, which speaks to the question of who this movie is really for. Cruella is PG-13, with dark themes and a main character who refuses to rule out murder when directly questioned about her methods. And at 134 minutes, it’s too long to keep the attention of younger children anyway. Yet it also includes such family-friendly cartoon touches as the adorable dachshund sidekick who helps Cruella and company pull off a series of, if not quite morally justified, relatively harmless heists. The fashion-world setting and campy performances from its female leads suggest an arch approach to the material—“Isn’t this all so deliciously wicked?” it asks—but the film takes the idea of a Cruella de Vil origin story so deathly seriously that it ends up being funny when it’s not trying to be.
A love of pure aesthetics will help anyone looking to appreciate the movie, whose sets and costumes are as indulgent as its soundtrack. As an opportunity for Emma Stone to purr and vamp in elaborate gowns, Cruella is plenty enjoyable. But the “too much is just enough” attitude that makes it visually pleasurable also makes it a slog in the storytelling department. Elements are picked up and tossed aside like yesterday’s fashions—an approach that extends to the supporting cast, including Kirby Howell-Baptiste and John McCrea, whose characters are quickly pushed to the margins of the story, having served their function of scoring a superficial “representation win” for Disney. All the while, the film answers in great detail questions it’s difficult to imagine anyone has ever asked about the untold origins of Cruella de Vil.
There are reasonable explanations for Cruella’s mix of tones and influences. Maybe it’s been tailored for a specific audience of preteens and young teenagers who are too old for Disney cartoons but not yet old enough for actual amoral antiheroes. Likewise, perhaps the film’s creators wanted to do something different with the material, only to see any sharp splinters they introduced sanded down on its trip through the Mouse House sawmill. Cruella can’t really be described as a big swing; Disney tends to its IP too assiduously to genuinely allow for one of those. But the film’s messiness can be begrudgingly admired, whether it’s intentional or not.