By Caryn James26th May 2021Disney's latest villain origin story is "lukewarm" style over substance – with a narrative that's not as bold as its design, writes Caryn James.T
There’s a lot of Cruella-splaining, much of it from her own mouth, in Disney’s origin story about the puppy-napper we think we know. As a young woman, the pre-Cruella is a talented, aspiring fashion designer named Estella, who lives in a 1970s London full of punk style and pop music. Emma Stone brings a winning charm to Estella and a languorous glamour to the unscrupulous Cruella she morphs into, who tries to take over the fashion world while avenging her mother’s death. Revenge has rarely looked so stylish.
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The film’s true heroine, though, is its costume designer Jenny Beavan, who takes inspiration from Alexander McQueen and other eye-popping designers. If its narrative had been as bold as its design, Cruella might have been spikier, more radical and more surprising. But this crowd-pleasing, sometimes fun revision only makes half-hearted moves in that direction. It fits all-too-neatly into a burgeoning trend of movies that put villains at the centre and reveal how they came to be so rotten.
The character of Cruella was purely evil in the animated 1961 classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians and its 1996 live-action remake with Glenn Close. But since 2014, we’ve seen Disney’s two Maleficent films with Angelina Jolie, as well as more acerbic origin stories in DC’s Joker and Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Like them, the new Cruella exists to explain but not excuse a cartoon villain, and to grab the commercial success likely to come from a popular character too exciting to waste. After all, who is the most memorable non-canine in the Dalmatians movies?
The characters turn bad for reasons that are not intriguing in themselves: a broken heart for Maleficent; a warped childhood for the Joker and Cruella; and both for Harley Quinn. The trick is to make these outsized villains interesting in the days before they become evil, which Cruella tries hard to do but doesn’t quite accomplish.
Stone makes Estella a likeable, Bohemian rebel despite the petty larceny
The film begins with her birth and Stone’s voiceover wryly saying, “Oh, no – starting here?” For the next 20 minutes, we hear Stone’s running commentary intrude on action we can observe perfectly well. As a child, Estella (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), born with black hair on one side and white on the other, fights bullies that say she looks like a skunk. Her lovely single mother calls Estella’s inner bad girl Cruella, a sign that the evil one might just be lurking, waiting to get out. Her mother mysteriously visits the mansion of the haughty fashion designer Baroness Von Hellman, and dies while a sumptuous Marie-Antoinette-themed costume ball, full of towering wigs and towering cakes, is in progress. Estella runs off to London, takes up with two street urchins named Horace and Jasper to form a trio of pickpockets, and dyes her hair red as Stone takes over the adult role.
Horace and Jasper are the henchmen of the classic Cruella story, but here they are Estella’s surrogate family and great assets to the film. Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) is a bumbler who adds comedy and Jasper (Joel Fry) the sensitive one who adds heart. Stone makes Estella a likeable, Bohemian rebel despite the petty larceny, but the film is really marking time until her inevitable dark turn.
Reenter the villainous Baroness, impeccably played by Emma Thompson with a witty edge. When she spots a punk, graffiti-filled store window Estella designed, she hires her to work at her fashion house. There, Thompson makes the Baroness deliciously self-absorbed as she swans around, snapping at her minions, occasionally wearing turbans that evoke Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and hint at her near future as a has-been. She also comes with an ominous black-and-white motif on her floor tiles, and with the three aggressive Dalmatians.
Half-way through, the film finally takes off, as Estella discovers the Baroness’ malice and becomes the vengeance-seeking Cruella, mimiking the Baroness’s slash of red lipstick and arrogant manner. She goes back to her black-and-white hair and adds dramatic dark eye makeup, grabbing newspaper headlines with her own fashion, and posing on top of a car in a snug jacket worn with a voluminous red skirt. As motives go, avenging your mother’s death is better than what drives most screen villains, but when Cruella even becomes imperious toward poor, loyal Horace and Jasper, it is the truest sign of her decaying soul.
When the costumes overwhelm the characters and story, there’s something hollow at the film’s centre
There is as much talent off-screen as on here, although too often it is squeezed into a formula. The director, Craig Gillespie, brings the crispness and taste for dark wit that he displayed in I, Tonya, especially when Cruella, Horace and Jasper stage a caper to steal a necklace she lost as a girl. But much of the action is clichéd, such as a long tracking shot through the Liberty London store.
The screenplay, by Dana Fox (Isn’t It Romantic) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite), has just enough sharp lines – Cruella blithely says, “Must dash. Much to avenge, revenge and destroy” – to make you wonder if an edgy script was watered down, or a tame one goosed-up. Even the score, by the great Nicholas Britell (Succession, Moonlight) is overshadowed by the soundtrack’s pop songs, some as lively as Blondie’s One Way or Another, others as predictable as the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.
Beavan’s costumes are dazzling throughout, including Cruella’s glittering red dress at the Baroness’s gala. But when the costumes overwhelm the characters and story, there’s something hollow at the film’s centre.
Maybe half-heartedness is the best we can expect from villain origin stories, which always want their characters to be good and bad, having things both ways. In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn tells a child: “For what it’s worth, you made me want to be a less terrible person.” That might be the motto for the entire genre, and that’s where Cruella leaves us, with a lukewarm villain who regrets being mean to her friends and has not so much as sneered at a dog. Not yet.