Counterpoint: Disney’s Girlboss ‘Cruella’ Actually Rules
Disney’s “Girlboss Joker” take on the classic villain does too much and barely works as an origin story. On the big screen, though, it’s a cinematic cacophony that we ate right up.
At every second of its (checks notes; couldn’t be true) two-hour-and-14-minute running time, Cruella—and Cruella, the new Disney origin story tracing the cartoon villain’s roots to evil—is doing the most. Consider it Extra: The Movie (With Puppies!). Actually, no puppies, at least not 101 of them. Though there is, you could say, a “litter” of Easter eggs in that regard.
But out Friday at a time when vaccinated people can safely see it on a big screen—go see it on the big screen!—Cruella boasts just about every other bell, whistle, music cue, stunt, production detail, stylistic flair, comedic hijink, and Emma-Stone-doing-an-accent flourish a family scoping out a cinematic return could hope to feast on.
Will that add up to enough for those who pony up the $29.99 Premier Access charge on top of their $7.99/month subscription to watch it on Disney+? At a movie theater, sometimes absurdity elevates into ambitious grandiosity. Messes might translate into a series of admirable, entertaining big swings. They say “go big, or go home.” But at home, I fear, the loud bark on screen will diminish to a whisper.
If you’ve perused the early reviews for Cruella, which chronicles how an orphan becomes a vagabond and then a fashion designer and then a mysterious punk-rock enfant terrible and then a maybe-one-day puppy murderer, you’ll have read about how none of this should work, or how much of it doesn’t work; or that it is unwieldy, yet perhaps entertaining in spite of itself; or that it’s a refreshing departure from the Disney conveyor belt of live-action IP remixes, or that it’s constrained by the limits and expectations of that very commodity.
There’s a chorus of observation surrounding the fact that five different people are credited as writers on the film, plus Dodie Smith, whose novel One Hundred and One Dalmatians is the source material. That tracks, as one could fairly argue that Cruella plays like the product of three or four different writing prompts and ideas that have been stitched together.
Tony McNamara, who scripted Stone’s puckish mischief in The Favourite, is one writer. Aline Brosh McKenna, writer of The Devil Wears Prada, is another. A chaos pairing of genre and tone? Or one that goes together like, say, a shock of black-and-white hair, parted severely in the middle to both startling and fashionable effect?
This is to say the criticism of Cruella is valid. It’s a madcap experiment careening through its exhausting running time with all the recklessness of a cartoon villain piloting a Panther De Ville down winding London streets without knowing the gas from the brake. But counterpoint: Cruella rules.
Cruella has barely gotten started before you’re whisked through a fashion show of costumes. Each is fabulous enough to make you drool but so plentiful that it's dizzying trying to clock each outrageous piece. You're like a tongue-wagging dog hanging out the window trying to focus on each passing distraction.
From the start, the film overloads on “needle drops,” the term used for when movies rely on existing popular music to score scenes, typically relying on gratifyingly on-the-nose cues. The Bee Gees, The Doors, Ike and Tina Turner, Queen, Blondie, The Clash: They come at you like Simone Biles charging the vault. The classic iPod Shuffle itself never worked this hard. Each new track crashes into the action to ensure that every scene carries enough energy to turn it into a set piece of its own—a trick that makes that long running time speed by.
Does Cruella have the “Girlboss Joker” aesthetic that the trailer so harrowingly teased? Oh, it most certainly does. Beware. But in the age of the Wickeds and the Maleficents and, yes, the Jokers, what should be unbearable about that in concept is audacious enough in execution—so corny and obtuse—that the pendulum swings the other way. By the grace of Emma Stone’s Jupiter-sized eyes, you come to embrace it.
Cruella is actually Estella, a young girl (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) whose mother (Emily Beecham) embraces the girl's wily streak. Until a tragic accident at a party—mom is pushed off a cliff by a trio of aggressive dalmatians, hence the canine hostility—leaves her scraping by like an Artful Dodger in a 1970s-set Oliver Twist.
Orphaned, Estella befriends Horace and Jasper (Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry), and the group forms a makeshift family of grifters. In between cons and cat burglaries, Horace and Jasper notice Estella’s talents for making clothes. Their next ruse becomes fabricating a resume that gets Estella hired at a department store and, eventually, legitimate work for the domineering designer Baroness, who is impressed by her keen eye.
Here arrives the most pressing point: In whatever ways Cruella is a wonky origin story for a Disney villain we’ve come to love and fear, the film is more accurately (and quite pleasingly) a Devil Wears Prada-meets-All About Eve redux, with Emma Thompson delivering award-worthy work chewing scenery in the Miranda Priestly role of Baroness.
There is not a moment of Thompson’s screen time she does not render a cool pleasure, each line delivery an icicle falling from a skyscraper to impale an unfortunate target. She effortlessly dons costume designer Jenny Beavan's sumptuous and regal designs, sketching each sidled movement into its own bit of cinematic art.
Even a villain’s origin story needs a villain, and Thompson’s Baroness is as good as it gets. As Estella climbs the ranks under Baroness and, more, learns a dark secret about the designer’s connection to her own tragic past, she invents Cruella, a secret alter ego hellbent on taking the Big Bad down.
What follows is an extended duet of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better),” electrified with a shredding punk bass guitar as Baroness and the attention-stealing menace Cruella attempt to one-up each other with a series of successive stunts.
Cruella’s vibe is the metal-studded antithesis of the Baroness’ classicism. She’s all about disruption and rebellion, mission statements that would make you laugh in the context of a Disney film if it didn’t somehow pull it off. Real anarchists will groan. Loosen up.
Styled as if Vivienne Westwood stormed The Roxy, only Stone could pull off the antihero’s transformation from Estella’s wounded hunger into Cruella’s mad-eyed menace. She’s so good, you almost buy it.
There are times when it seems this is a film that could stand on its own, and Mickey Mouse corporate just decided to name the title character Cruella and throw in some fun references to the animated Disney film. The Baroness-Cruella face-off could be its own story, nostalgic connections aside. In fact, it’s the laborious effort to transform that narrative into a simultaneous “How Cruella Was Born” yarn that’s responsible for the film’s most baffling stretches.
Cruella meanders enough to be unpredictable. That is both an endorsement and an exasperated eye roll at its multiple endings, the last of which seem to tease some sort of Cruella & Flunkies crime supersquad franchise. But even that plummet down the last act’s false bottoms is part of what one could just embrace about this film: It’s all just so much.
These backflips into existing Disney IP have become a frustrating cinematic experiment. My colleague Laura Bradley mentioned an astute observation to me. With these films, Disney is presenting its own takes on age-old fairy tales, be it Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or The Little Mermaid, as a new canon, ready to be tweaked, adapted, and reimagined like the classics.
There’s hubris there, to be sure, and a dark capitalist shadow, too. Cruella, with its shoe-horned attempts at referencing 101 Dalmatians, proves just how thrilling but also limiting the exercise can be.
The movie is not so cynical as to be compared to the shot-for-shot “live-action” remakes of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. It’s not so tonally bizarre as Maleficent or Dumbo. And it’s far more ambitious and creative than the recent Aladdin, fearless enough to depart from the perceived Disney aesthetic.
Is it a bit naughty? It seems to think it is. That will make some of us scoff and titillate others. It might be silly to place all of this on a Disney IP retread, but we’ve long ago made that deal with the devil. Or should we say, de Vil?