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Non-Review Review: Cruella

Cruella arrives as the culmination of two interconnected trends.

Most obviously, Cruella is the latest in the long line of live action (or pseudo-live action) adaptations of classic Disney properties hoping to turn the studio’s animated back catalogue into a source of rich intellectual property that can be steadily mined for quick returns. Movies like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King all grossed over a billion dollars, so there is surely an audience hungry to see beloved childhood classics transferred into live action.

Ready for some hot takes?

Ironically enough, 101 Dalmatians was one of the first films to make that leap from pencil and inks to live action, with an adaptation (and a sequel) in the mid-nineties. Indeed, it’s arguable that Glenn Close’s incarnation of Cruella DeVil looms just large enough in the culture that a simple reboot of the premise might feel a little gauche. Jon Favreau could direct a second pseudo-live-action version of The Jungle Book for the company, but only because the earlier effort had no cultural footprint.

So Cruella is not content to be a straight-up reimagining of the classic Disney cartoon. Instead, the film draws from another contemporary trend when it comes to managing these intellectual properties: the villain-centric reboot. Cruella is arguably of a piece with recent pop culture like Ratchet, Maleficent or Joker, all works that reimagined a familiar intellectual property through the lens of its antagonist. There is evidently money in this concept, with Joker earning over a billion dollars and Maleficent earning half a billion and inspiring a sequel.

A crime of fashion.

So Cruella offers an origin story for the classic Disney villain, inviting the audience to get to know the monstrous fashion designer whose defining character trait was her desire to skin a lot of adorable puppies to make the perfect coat. It’s certainly an ambitious assignment. While Cruella is one of the most striking villains in the Disney canon, with one of the catchiest theme songs, she is hardly the most complex or nuanced. There’s hardly a lot of tragedy to be mined in a character so horrifically monstrous that “if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.”

This sets up the central tension in Cruella, and the problem that the movie never quite manages to resolve. Cruella is a much stronger movie whenever it allows itself to drift away from the shadow of 101 Dalmations and become its own thing, but it suffers greatly when it finds itself drawn back into the gravity of the original Disney classic. Cruella works reasonably well as a seventies-set fashion heist movie, but struggles when it tries to be a compelling villain origin story for a character who really never needed one.

Cruella DeVil has never been a particularly complex character. She is as clear cut a villain as exists in the Disney canon. Her entire “thing” is that she wants to turn cute dogs into fashion accessories. She makes no real effort to conceal this desire. Even more than that, Cruella comes across as a deeply unpleasant person to be around. 101 Dalmatians never offers the character an excuse or justification like The Lion King does for Scar. Even her name lacks nuance. Her name is literally “Cruella DeVil”, which manages to suggest the words “cruel”, “devil” and even “villain.” That is the character, right there.

To a certain extent, the character of Cruella DeVil is really just a set of iconography layered on top of a deliberately cartoonish villain. It’s telling that Cruella is careful to carry over a lot of the character’s visual design while completely rewriting and reworking her back story. Cruella retains her pasty white complexion and her shock of white hair, because those are really the most essential aspects of the character. Those are, after all, everything that anybody remembers about the villain from her earlier appearances.

There’s definitely a very pointed observation to be made here about pop culture’s obsessive gaze backwards here.

Understandably, this doesn’t exactly give Cruella a lot of hooks into a particularly compelling characterisation for the villain. So writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara fall back on the standard building blocks of a story like this. As Cruella develops and explores its lead character, it becomes a loose assemblage of ideas and concepts drawn from better movies and assembled as clumsily as possible in an effort to extend a two-dimensional character into the facsimile of a three-dimensional human being.

These are undoubtedly the weakest and most frustrating aspects of Cruella, as the movie runs through a checklist of items that an origin story like this is expected to explain. Cruella is full of heavyhanded dialogue that oversignifies every aspect of the character. Most obviously, Cruella decides that “Cruella DeVil” is an absurd name for a human being and so instead dedicates considerable real estate to explaining how she came to be called that.

It turns out May, in fact, is the Cruella-ist month.

The character who would come to be known as Cruella was born Estella, but had a mean streak in her. “Your name’s Estella, not Cruella,” her mother tells her, as the audience hears the sound of a box being ticked. Later on, a henchman drives a fancy looking car up to the house. It’s a DeVille car, a symbol of wealth and power. Of course, the uncultured henchman mispronounces it as “DeVil”, and so that happens to stick in terms of explaining the character’s name. If it is less clumsy than the origin of Han Solo’s name in Solo: A Star Wars Story, it is only marginally so.

This is the degree of explanation that Cruella insists on offering, the level of detail in its attempt to offer an account of a one-dimensional villain. Cruella even opens with the birth of the lead character, as effective a metaphor as any for the story’s difficulty in deciding what is actually important about this character and her identity. Everything about Cruella is over-determined. Even her passion for fashion is explained by way of pop psychology, deriving from her mother’s desire to see her fitting in with wider society. “You have to follow a pattern,” her mother tells her. “There’s a way of doing things.” 

The DeVil wears Prada.

Everything about Cruelle DeVil is pathologised. Cruella even goes out of its way to explain why the character might possibly harbour an irrational dislike of dalmatians, when a horrific family tragedy is tied to the animals. However, there’s very little passion to any of this. There’s no sense that the movie actually wants to know any of this about Cruella, or that the film harbours any real curiousity about the character. Instead, it seems like the character’s core attributes were fed into an algorithm and a blueprint was provided for details that the movie had to explain.

Indeed, this is the problem and the paradox with Cruella as an origin story. As a character in 101 Dalmatians, Cruella DeVil is a woman who wants to murder puppies. Any origin story about the character has to explain that. Everything else is incidental. Cruella’s primary motivation in 101 Dalmatians is that she is a woman irrationally obsessed with making fashion accessories from living creatures. Forget about the character’s name, forget about the character’s back story, forget about the character’s mental health diagnosis, what good is an origin story if it can’t tie into the single defining attribute of a character?

Roof stuff.

Cruella is understandably reluctant to build two-and-a-quarter hour movie around a puppy-murdering psychopath. Like Maleficent and Joker before it, the film effectively tries to transform an unambiguous villain into something of an antihero. The clear intention of Cruella is that the audience will root for the title character by the end of the story. However, this creates a strange dissonance, because the villain of 101 Dalmatians is a character who is not designed to draw any sympathy from the audience.

Cruella includes a few oblique references to Cruella wanting to skin some dogs to make a coat, but these are played as knowing jokes rather than anything to be taken seriously. Indeed, Cruella ends with the title character further from her classic characterisation than she was in the film’s second act. Disney understands, quite reasonably, that audiences aren’t going to turn out for a puppy killer. However, that just raises the question of the what the point of this particular exercise is supposed to be? Cruella doesn’t know, and this is a serious problem.

Following the lead.

Instead, Cruella often feels like a collection of elements drawn from other successful films within this particular genre. Cruella generates sympathy for its lead by pitting her against a monstrous fashion designer named Baroness von Hellman. Baroness von Hellman is arguably a stand-in for Cruella herself, and the movie suggests that a lot of Cruella’s later persona was inspired by the ice-cold fashion designer. However, this creates several problems of itself. The Baroness is arguably closer to Cruella’s original characterisation than Cruella herself, and the Baroness never does anything as evil as trying to skin puppies.

In order to distract the audience from these obvious problems, Cruella structures itself as a twisting and winding narrative. The version of the character who appeared in 101 Dalmatians was very straightforward, with audiences immediately getting her deal. In contrast, Cruella deliberately and aggressively complicates the character’s back story. Over the course of the film, Cruella is offered no fewer than three traumatic back stories. The film plays a shell game, concealing key elements from the audience in an effort to generate more plot and more tension.

The Cruella-ty is the point.

Again, there is something paradoxical in all this. Many of the twists involving Cruella’s back story are easy enough to predict, because they have been done countless times in countless films. Indeed, the central one is such a cliché that even Joker made a point to subvert and avoid it. However, because of the way that the movie structures these reveals, the back story is needlessly convoluted and cluttered. The audience is well ahead of the game, but Cruella herself constantly has the rug pulled out from under her.

It doesn’t help matters that Cruella always follows the path of least resistance. The film is directed by Craig Gillespie, who did wonderful work on I, Tonya. He brings the same style to Cruella, leaning heavily on needle-drops. However, while the soundtrack to I, Tonya felt knowing and playful, the soundtrack to Cruella feels condescending and obvious. Cruella walks to her first day of work as Nina Simone sings, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.” A sequence in which a bunch of animals are given a wash is set to Car Wash, because presumably there’s no more obvious washing-themed music cue.

“Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Indeed, the film’s final music cue is almost endearingly audacious. It feels like it’s taking up the gauntlet cast down by the use of Zombie at the end of Army of the Dead, as the audience is properly and finally introduced to Cruella DeVil to the sounds of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. It’s such an absurdly obvious and shallow choice, and it’s revealing that the production team opted to leave the song off the soundtrack album, because it would likely have been (fairly) criticised.

For all that Cruella tries to explain its protagonist, the film’s structure and plotting is disappointingly conventional. It might be reductive to describe Cruella as Girlboss meets Joker by way of The Devil Wears Prada, but it’s also not unfair. The film even replays a scene from Bohemian Rhapsody, where a frustrated artist stuck in a downward spiral fires their lawyer in the back seat of a car, and then ejects the lawyer out into the middle of the road. At one point, Cruella disappears into a crowd of look-a-likes, a scene lifted directly from Joker. It all feels very calculated and very cold, which is frustrating.

“They do it over there, but you can’t do it here.”

Cruella tries to cover over this conventional and predictable plotting by gesturing broadly at big ideas. It touches on concepts like feminism and punk rock, setting Cruella’s ascent against the backdrop of seventies London. As a child, Cruella quotes “I am woman, hear me roar”, before conceding, “That wasn’t much of a thing back in 1964, but it was about to be.” Similarly, the conflict between Cruella and the Baroness is occasionally framed in generational terms. When von Hellman asks about Cruella’s style, he valet replies, “All the young people are doing it now.”

As with Joker, Cruella repeatedly alludes to class conflicts and mental health, but doesn’t really have anything particularly insightful or interesting to say about either. Cruella is potentially interesting when it focuses on the character as a working class grifter who creates a persona to navigate the world of the wealthy, but it dramatically undermines that element with the final reveal about Cruella’s history and origin. Similarly, the film hints obliquely that Cruella may be suffering with an undiagnosed mental illness, but then weirdly falls back into the classic trope of evil as something inherited and passed down.

“I have a tooth to pick with you.”

The film’s most interesting scene is a frank and honest discussion between the Baroness and Cruella, in which the Baroness explains why she has become so vicious and so angry. “You can’t care about anyone else,” the Baroness states. “Everyone else is an obstacle. You care what an obstacle wants or feels and you’re dead. If I’d cared about anyone or thing I might have died like so many brilliant women with a drawer full of unseen genius and a heart full of sad bitterness. You have the talent for your own label. Whether you have the killer instinct is the bigger question.”

It’s a moment that raises all sorts of interesting and provocative questions, and which explicitly frames the film’s conflicts in terms of gender. The implication is that the Baroness turned out the way that she did, at least in part, because it was the only way for a woman to accomplish what she wanted to at the time. It’s a very pointed critique, and it resonates with the film’s seventies setting. After all, the United Kingdom was only a few years away from Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher, who would retroactively be claimed by the Spice Girls for her “girl power” despite all the questionable implications.

The death of the party.

Unfortunately, Cruella is never particularly interested in pulling any of those threads and exploring where they might actually go. There’s arguably a much more interesting movie in Cruella that plays up the implicit parallels between Cruella and Thatcher more explicitly, but Cruella falls back on trite sentiments like “people do need a villain to believe in” as news reporters deliver exposition like, “Some call her a designer, others: a vandal.” None of this would be an issue, if Cruella didn’t feel so self-important and so assured of itself.

This is a shame, because there are parts of Cruella that work rather well. Indeed, despite these fundamental and foundational problems, Cruella is arguably a much stronger film than many of its contemporaries among the live action remakes. Craig Gillespie has a great deal of fun with Cruella when the script allows him to, such as in filming a botched break in to a fashion house or an impromptu punk concert helpfully set to a cover of the Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog.

The DeVil you know.

More to the point, the production and design on Cruella are impressive. The movie has a very grand and very art deco look that fits with the inspiration and the source material without feeling overly beholden or faithful. Cruella is full of big rooms and high ceilings, strong lines and sharp contrasts, all of which make the movie feel just a little bit more stylised and stylish than other adaptations like Aladdin or The Lion King. Credit is particularly due to Fiona Crombie’s production design and Jenny Beavan’s costume design, along with Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography.

It helps that both Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are clearly enjoying themselves. Like Glenn Close before her, Stone seems to understand that the character endures because she is larger than life, and that audiences were never drawn to Cruella because of her subtlety. As a result, Stone goes big and the movie benefits greatly from that choice. A lot of Stone’s dialogue is driven by trite clichés about how the final stage of grief should be “revenge”, but Stone does a fairly decent job of getting this to work as much as possible.

Indeed, Cruella comes closest to working when it gets away from the baggage of being a villain origin story for a villain who never needed an origin story. Cruella is fun as a pulpy fashion heist adventure movie or a goofy workplace family film. It suffers whenever it tries to put too much weight on itself, because it’s unwilling to actually carry that weight in a meaningful direction. Maybe the production team were barking up the wrong tree.

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