Disney’s ‘Cruella’ gave its puppy-killing villain a catty history in the fashion biz and made it work
It’s a cliché to say that playing the villain is far more interesting than the hero – what a Disney story in which the princesses (especially in the older films), on the whole, are usually just trapped in some way, helpless or helpless are twice that is sleep all day until they are rescued. But of all the Disney women on the dark side – the Ursulas, the Maleficents, and of course the wicked stepmothers – none has captivated the imagination as much as the fantastically named Cruella de Vil.
She was rewarded with a Joker-like genesis story in Disney’s latest live-action reboot “Cruella” this weekend in cinemas and at Disney + Premier Access. It’s sadly hampered by Disney’s persistent need to be kid-friendly – though she’s, of course, the only Disney villain with a rap sheet that includes “the attempted murder of three-digit numbers of puppies” – but which means The Cattiness of the movie that it accidentally becomes more adorable than it should be.
On the one hand, trying to make a puppy killer the protagonist of your film was a losing battle for Disney, the leading provider of Happily Ever Afters for the U12 set. But the good news here is that the movie’s writers were fully aware of the ridiculousness of their task, and relied on it as best they could. They renamed their precocious De-Vil-to-be to “Estella” (“Cruella” is the name of the inner witch she is constantly trying to suppress) and, for her feelings towards man’s best friend, to real Disney -Wise just say dead mothers explain everything.
Welcome to The de Vil Wears Prada.
It’s a pretty good script, ultimately, that requires a certain amount of camp among the actors to make it through – although there are some moments in Child De Vil’s years when not everyone is up to the challenge. But then Estella becomes happy and turns into Emma Stone, and her friend Jasper Badun (Joel Fry) gets a job that attracts the attention of Baroness von Hellman, played by Emma Thompson.
Welcome to The de Vil Wears Prada.
This is not a conflict where someone is the heroine; you get the feeling that if von Hellman believed that puppy fur was sufficiently fashionable, she would have scooped it up too. But Stone and Thompson are a real on-screen delight, fabulous when sniffing other people, and perfect when saving their best cuts for each other.
The cattiness of the film means it accidentally turns out to be more adorable than it gets allowed to be.
Unfortunately, at almost 2 1/2 hours, the film doesn’t always stay as lively as its visual and acoustic delights. The setting, for example, is more like the Disney Idea of London than actual London – Mary Poppins could go with “Spit Spot” and no one would blink – which is off-putting when there are so many other efforts at truthfulness (the punk vs. Haute couture runway and the contemporary soundtrack among them). The dog figures – of which there are a surprising amount since they don’t really play a role in the story – all have realistic CGI overlays to animate their faces, which can be quite unsettling.
And of course, everything has to get a PG rating, which means Cruella’s cruelty never goes beyond the level of garden petting and the occasional groin soccer ball. (Regina George from “Mean Girls” would be unimpressed.)
All of this makes it more than a little difficult to see the villain of Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” (either the live-action version from 1961 or 1996 with Glenn Close as de Vil). How do you go from bon mots, pranks and a kick in the groin to wielding a London nap-nap ring and mass murder of puppies? By the time the film ends and our wife de Vil has moved into the famous Hell Hall, all the pieces are there, but when it comes to making the leap to becoming the real villain, “Cruella” never has the courage to commit.
This movie occasionally flirts with being bad – there’s even a moment when it almost looks like Cruella is finally finally uttering a curse word out loud (spoiler alert: she doesn’t) – but in the end everyone knows that this movie is a Disney product and decency needs to be cultivated.
Estella may not live up to the reputation of Cruella de Vil that preceded her, but if Emma Stone’s attitude doesn’t keep you entertained, nothing else will.