Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are clearly having a ball, but too much about this '101 Dalmatians' prequel sticks to a formula.
A killer dress, a statement jacket, a devastating head-to-toe ensemble: if they truly match their descriptions, they stand the test of time. Set in 70s London as punk takes over the aesthetic, live-action 101 Dalmatians prequel Cruella is full of such outfits — plus a white-and-black fur coat that's suspected of being made from slaughtered dogs. If the film itself was a fashion item, though, it'd be a knockoff. It'd be a piece that appears fabulous from afar, but can't hide its seams. That's hardly surprising given this origin tale stitches together pieces from The Devil Wears Prada, The Favourite, Superman, Star Wars and Dickens, and doesn't give two yaps if anyone notices. The Emmas — Stone, playing the dalmatian-hating future villain; Thompson, doing her best Miranda Priestly impression as a ruthless designer — have a ball. Oscar-winning Mad Max: Fury Road costume designer Jenny Beavan is chief among the movie's MVPs. But for a film placed amid the punk-rock revolution, it's happy to merely look the part, not live and breathe it. And, in aiming to explain away its anti-heroine's wicked ways, it's really not sure what it wants to say about her.
Here, the needle drops have it. If compiling Cruella's soundtrack involved more than typing "60s, 70s and 80s hits" into Spotify, it doesn't show. A snarling rendition of The Stooges' 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' proves as blatant as it sounds. When a plan comes together to The Beatles' 'Come Together', you'll wonder if the laziest algorithm in the world made that choice. And would it really be a film about someone called de Vil — a naming choice that's spelled out with such force, you could spot it from the moon — if The Rolling Stones' 'Sympathy for the Devil' wasn't given a spin? As the Mouse House keeps exploring its antagonists' nefarious urges (see also: the two Maleficent movies), it routinely just covers the bare necessities, story-wise. Here, it takes that approach in as many places as it can. Indeed, in telling viewers that Cruella is saddled with childhood traumas, too, it seems to think that two-plus over-stretched hours of 70s cosplay will suffice.
Before she becomes the puppy-skinning fashionista that remains among Glenn Close's best-known roles, and before she's both a wannabe designer and the revenge-seeking talk of the town played by Stone (Zombieland: Double Tap), Cruella is actually 12-year-old girl Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, Game of Thrones). Sporting two-toned hair and a cruel that streak her mother (Emily Beecham, Little Joe) tries to tame with kindness, she's a target for bullies, but has the gumption to handle them. Then tragedy strikes, an orphan is born, loss haunts her every move and, after falling in with a couple of likeable London thieves, those black-and-white locks get a scarlet dye job. By the time that Estella is in her twenties, she's well-versed in pulling quick heists with Jasper (Joel Fry, Yesterday) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, Songbird). She loves sewing the costumes required more than anything else, however. After years spent dreaming of knockout gowns, upmarket department stores and threads made by the Baroness (Thompson, Last Christmas), she eventually gets her chance — for fashion domination, as well as vengeance.
It worked for director Craig Gillespie in I, Tonya, but the wry narration that guides Cruella's story quickly overstays its welcome. The knowing tone, obvious observations and taunts of a death that can't stick in a prequel all purely hit the expected beats, as almost everything here does. Co-screenwriter Dana Fox also penned Isn't It Romantic, but trades satirising one genre's tropes for leaning into another's (yes, villain origin stories are their own genre now). Fellow scribe Tony McNamara was nominated for an Oscar for The Favourite and an Emmy for The Great, so the fact that Stone often feels like she has stepped out of the former and into this — right down to her subterfuge and scheming beneath the Baroness' feet — is no surprise. The Devil Wears Prada's Aline Brosh McKenna gets a story credit, too, because Disney isn't attempting to conceal its inspirations. Cruella may stem from Dodie Smith's book, then the cartoon, then the live-action remake, but it has been cut from a clear pattern.
There's zero vampishness in the end result, but plenty of botched ideas and muddled themes. When Estella is driven to succeed, rebel against being treated poorly at work and punish the person responsible for her pain, they're far more fascinating aspects of her character than the movie meaningfully examines — perhaps because they don't quite fit her journey to the monochrome side. Empathising with her plight is easy several times over. After an early incident, understanding why she doesn't love dalmatians is as well. Gillespie and company don't come close to selling the leap from ambitious and avenging to future animal cruelty, though. The latter isn't actually a part of Cruella, but in giving its central figure the Joker treatment, the film's character arc is always a stretch. It also undercuts the much more potent notion that some people are just evil, and don't need a sob story as an excuse.
If, in all of their eagerness to stick to a template, Cruella's powers-that-be just wanted to pair Stone up with another English acting titan — swapping The Favourite's Olivia Colman for the on-screen treasure that is Thompson — and then let them have at it, that's understandable. It's also as a good enough reason as any for this or any movie to exist. Alongside Beavan's Vivienne Westwood- and Alexander McQueen-influenced costumes, plus Nicolas Karakatsanis' (another I, Tonya alum) constantly moving camerawork, the acerbic Oscar-winning Emmas are the reason that the film has any bite to go along with its empty barks. But the duo's gleeful cartoonishness, flamboyance and winning ability to wear the hell out of their outfits only takes Cruella so far. Even with their obvious commitment, this intellectual property-extending exercise is more filler than killer. After you give it a whirl, you'll put it back on the rack and rarely spare it another thought.
Cruella is now screening in Australian cinemas, and will be available via Disney+'s Premium Access from Friday, May 28.
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