Children, your attention please. If you enjoyed the animated Disney film 101 Dalmatians (1961), be forewarned. Your beloved movie is the latest Disney classic to have undergone a “reimagining.” An origin movie has been produced, and this time it’s about the film’s infamous villain, Cruella De Vil.
Cruella presents the back story of the Dalmatian-loathing diva, and she gets the star treatment in a lavish live action movie. This opus, however, appears to have been “re-imagined” to cater to viewers who aren’t children.
It begins with a lengthy chapter on her not-too-happy childhood. Originally christened Estella, she already had the weird hair when she was born. In school, she learns to be tough when she has to defend herself against bullies. Having been orphaned, Estella spent much of her early years committing petty crimes with two boys. Those two would grow up to be her henchmen. It’s a promising start, though even younger viewers may notice some similarities to the books of Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl, among others. Strangely, the film carries less of Dodie Smith, author of the original novel.
As a young adult, Estella (now played by Emma Stone) aspires to be a fashion designer, and she gets her foot in the industry by working for London’s supreme designer, the Baroness Von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Estella later discovers that her new boss is evil personified, the devil incarnate who wears extravagant gowns and turbans.
The baroness, it turns out, also had something to do with the misery Estella had endured as a child. It’s a preposterous twist, but it finally gets the plot moving. It paves the way for the duel between aspiring designer and legendary designer.
Cruella is both bizarre and shamelessly campy
Emma Stone and Emma Thompson gamely play their roles to the hilt. They use all their talent to make their respective roles fun, even if the script is devoid of sparkle and wit. Consequently, Thompson is forced to do what Celia Rodriguez and Cherie Gil have been doing so expertly. Cherie Gil had the advantage of having something wicked to say when she contemptuously gave a second-rate, trying-hard copycat a dressing down. Thompson isn’t given enough ammunition to throw any blood-curdling shade. Perhaps Miranda Priestley had already said them all.
When Estella decides to challenge the baroness, she apes Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne and takes on a new identity, Cruella De Vil. The new persona is adopted merely for the sake of seeking justice. It’s not yet her official crossover to the dark side.
In that other origin movie, Maleficent, it’s explained how this Disney villain was merely misunderstood. Maleficent, according to that movie, was a victim of fake news. It would take a sequel to show why Cruella became an out-and-out villain—unless, of course, it was really Disney’s intent to discard certain traits that made Cruella the villain she had been.
As directed by the acclaimed Craig Gillespie, Cruella is both bizarre and shamelessly campy. It plays more like an expensive Hollywood tribute to the epics of the late Filipino director Joey Gosiengfao. Gillespie has done a well-received movie about warring divas, I, Tonya, so he’s on familiar ground. But what made I, Tonya intriguing is that its outrageous contretemps were fact-based. With Cruella, Gillespie is saddled with an ill-conceived story.
Thus, like his two stars, he works double-time to compensate for the script. He turns almost every scene into a colorful music video. Frantic editing and camera work and several hit songs from the ’70s are used to enliven the proceedings. Such gimmickry makes us hum along as we admire the dazzling sets and costumes.
The technique does work, especially during the fashion shows. Fashionistas watching this will be on Cloud 9, and costume designer Jenny Beavan will probably win another Oscar for her work in this film. But as the movie plods along, the songs and the busy editing get tiresome. This makes Cruella too cluttered and anarchic. Likewise, it overshadows the actors who work hard to make viewers root for them. They end up appearing less human than the dogs in the animated version.
Though the director’s style almost distracts from her performance, Emma Stone has enough charisma to make viewers stick to the movie and look forward to an epic scene in which Cruella loses it and laughs that trademark laugh.
Hit songs from the ’70s are used to enliven the proceedings, making us hum along
Stone does get the hair and the flamboyant clothes right. Her British accent and her own take on the laugh are also acceptable, though not on par with Tallulah Bankhead’s laugh. Reportedly, the original Cruella was modeled on Bankhead, the theater and screen diva who called everybody “dahling.” The movie pays her homage when a scene from a film of hers is shown on a TV screen for just a split second.
Cruella doesn’t pay homage to Glenn Close, who played the villain in two live action films during the ’90s. It would have been intriguing to see Close and Emma Thompson lock horns in a duel. With all due respect to Emma Stone, she’ll have to age a bit to master the art of acting like a diva. We’re willing to wait for her.
While on the subject of paying homage, “Easter eggs” can be found in various parts of the movie to remind us of the original source material. However, they play less like a tribute to 101 Dalmatians and more like grudging acknowledgements. Most notable among them are the three Dalmatians owned by the baroness, who had them trained to be homicidal blood hounds. This may have led to Cruella’s disdain for the spotted dogs. Yet throughout the film, she is shown to be a genuine dog lover.
Viewers will have to check out the final credits to get a glimpse of an actual connection to the original film. It feels like an afterthought, but it’s the only serene moment in this very long and noisy movie.