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'Cruella' review: Emma Stone rocks the frocks, but the story? Woof

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Who is “Cruella,” a coming-of-age movie about a woman who grows up to skin Dalmatians, for exactly? I have seen the movie; I have no idea. 

I do know that stars Emma Stone and Emma Thompson spend 134 minutes chewing on scenery like it’s made of rawhide, while they model sumptuous 1970s fashions — everything from Carnaby Street couture to Vivienne Westwood punk glam, all as seen through a Disney imagineer’s peepers. 

The latest in Disney’s quest to revive all its intellectual property for maximum merchandising opportunities, “Cruella” is a dubiously faithful prequel to the “101 Dalmatians” franchise. An origin story for infamous rogue Cruella de Vil, it’s out in theaters on Friday, as well as available to stream on Disney+ for an added fee. 

And … it's kinda woof, y’all. An overlong curio that repeatedly proves it does not have the courage of its canine convictions, “Cruella” is neither dark enough nor light enough for its creative brief. But though it’s not likely to leave you a rabid fan, even I still can’t help but feel a little charmed by the mutt.  

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Emma Stone stars as villainess-in-waiting Cruella de Vil in Disney's "Cruella."

Disney fans know Cruella best as a spindly glamour monster with two-tone hair, an unholy marriage of Olive Oyl and the Cryptkeeper. Director Craig Gillespie’s film introduces us instead to a cute baby. (Still with the hair, though. Answer that question.) Little Estella is being raised by a kindly single mother in pastoral midcentury England, but when she gets a little too feisty, mum chastises her with the nickname “Cruella.” The wild child tries her best to behave, but she’s drawn to glamour, avant-garde fashion and anything that challenges authority. 

And dogs. Girl loves dogs. Probably fine.

After tragedy strikes, Estella finds herself on the streets as a pickpocket. She grows into a wily, ambitious young adult (played by Stone) who runs grifts with her thief family, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). But fashion is still her dream, and she worms her way into the employ of the Baroness (Thompson), a sadistically imperious and comically wealthy couturier. Miranda Priestly, if Miranda Priestly had a pack of murderous spotted dogs.

The two women, evenly matched in their genius, soon find themselves at odds. To get revenge, Estella embraces the darker cards that life has dealt and reinvents herself as her childhood alter ego, Cruella, the punk provocateur of London. 

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Mark Strong and Emma Thompson act rich and dastardly in "Cruella."

And maybe you’re asking yourself: Isn’t this a set-up for a very sympathetic portrayal of a woman who literally hunts puppies for their pelts? You are not wrong! “Cruella” could have leaned into the darkness and gone full “Breaking Bad.” You can detect some smart instincts in the film. The Baroness is a truly nasty piece of work, and an audience can easily root against her in favor of a charismatic and familiar Ms. de Vil. 

But whether the studio chickened out at the last minute about having a villainous protagonist in a children’s property, or whether Stone proved too likable to portray a true heel, the Cruella in “Cruella” just isn’t that bad. The audience is repeatedly told she is bad! She even says it herself, and “psycho,” too. But every time the character seems to descend through the fire to her more familiar form, the story pulls her back into the light, until she just seems … kind of inconsiderate and in need of therapy? (Inconsideratella de Vil would be less musical to the ear, yes.) It’s a challenge to make the point crystal without spoiling the goings-on, but aside from the various larcenies, Cruella’s most egregious crimes seem to be flash mobs.  

The list of writing credits seems to point to a fractured vision — Aline Brosh McKenna (of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and, yes, "The Devil Wears Prada"), Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis with the story; Dana Fox and Tony McNamara with the screenplay. It’s not hard to imagine that there was, at one point, a coherent “Cruella” that got workshopped into a movie about nothing, for no one. 

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Say what you will about the plot in "Cruella": The costumes are next-level.

At least two great instincts survived the production process: casting Stone and Thompson. If this movie is “for” someone, it’s for those of us who love to watch two electric performers vamp and camp and never tamp their chemistry. Stone’s not a chameleonic performer, which is fine here, because her wild-eyed, husky-voiced, drama-club-geek energy lends itself to two hours as a cartoon. And because “Cruella” seems so intent on making us sympathize with the tragic dreamer Estella, having Stone’s winning charm on board is a must. The character of Cruella never makes sense in this movie, but at least Stone is comfortable in both wild directions the story pulls her (and pulls her, and pulls her, and …). It’s a shame she doesn’t get to be truly monstrous — she could sell it. 

Speaking of selling, Emma No. 2’s turn as the Beelzebub of British fashion is truly rich. Cruella needs a suitable antagonist to receive all of her … Cruella-ness, and in Thompson’s Baroness, she finds a planet with equal gravity. For all of Stone’s clown-faced craziness, Thompson is the picture of elegant evil, her most murderous impulses poorly contained by tightened turbans and cinched corsets. Not only does she get the best bon mots — check her out when she reads a pair of department store heads to filth — but she provides the closest map to the Cruella we’re promised will come. “You can’t care about anyone else,” the Baroness advises Estella in what passes for mentorship.  

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If your chief attraction to “Cruella” is the concept of a Disney villain as a Sex Pistols-era fashion provocateur, then you’ll likely be happier with what you get. The costumes by Jenny Beavan are an Oscar nomination lock, from an impossibly long train spilling off of a garbage truck to any manner of tailored leather goods the main character struts around in to the looks on all the mod young creatures. Also impressive is Beavan’s ability to capture many aesthetics of the time without flattening the film’s world into parody. The Baroness’ frocks read as clean-lined sophistication from the era just previous, aptly signaling her dinosaur status (and the Cruella meteor is coming indeed).  

The film scored master composer Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight,” “Succession” and more), but unfortunately, it hides his work behind a battery of on-the-nose and what’s-a-nose pop music cues. The Clash and Blondie — yeah, man. The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow" — this is still about the dog-killing lady, right? Nina Simone — oh, well, that’s probably not how she wanted you to use that song. 

Paul Walter Hauser as Horace, Emma Stone as Estella and Joel Fry as Jasper plot something criminal in "Cruella."

The taste for excess extends to the film’s desire to connect to the “101 Dalmatians” mythos. (Mmhmm, I did feel ridiculous typing that.) Guys, no one reasonable will show up to a 2021 live action spinoff of a 1961 animated film, which was based on a 1956 book for kids, and expect anything close to continuity. The wink-winks in “Cruella" are louder than a skunk-colored hairdo. 

It’s possible there are diehard “Dalmatians” devotees, frothing at the mouth for any new bone thrown their way. Far be it from me to doubt the power of Glenn Close, the previous bearer of the cinematic de Vil name, to inspire fervor. For people who just like a good movie, or a Disneyfied escape, or a fresh reinvention of fiction, “Cruella’s” delights are stray. 

“Normal is the cruelest insult of all,” we’re taught in this movie. Oh. I can think of crueler.  

‘Cruella’ 

Grade:

Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Kirby Howell-Baptiste

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and some violence

Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes

Watch: In theaters and streaming on Disney+ on Friday