Okay, so first of all, I can’t stand voiceovers. God, I hate them. Film is a visual medium, and with all the tools available to make things obvious through dialogue or cinematography, a voiceover is typically one of the first signs that whatever movie you’re watching is going to be extremely lazy. You don’t get more expository than the main character telling you exactly what to think and feel in a disembodied god-voice for 2 hours.
But I was willing to forgive Cruella’s egregious voiceover (which even starts with a “yep, that’s me”-type opener). Ratatouille had one, and that movie is great, so maybe this one will transcend the issue.
Unfortunately, it mostly doesn’t. A prequel to 101 Dalmatians in what I dearly hope is not a new spat of Disney villain backstories, Cruella stars Emma Stone as the devilish fashionista, following her rise to power and the humanity she has to give up to get there.
At least, that’s what I think screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara were going for. The main problem with this character (and any other villains Disney might be considering for a backstory) is that she can’t really be explored unless you’re willing to go very, very dark, and more than a little adult. One-note villains serve a purpose: their fun campiness is usually the first introduction to the world’s cruelty that children get, and because they don’t have to be sympathetic, they’re allowed to be outrageously, unapologetically bad people. Cruella DeVil is a fashion-obsessed socialite who loves fur. That’s a pretty dark character trait that this film skirts around, but never actually addresses, leaving a big gap between this story and the events of 101 Dalmatians that you would expect a prequel to engage with. Additionally, we need to root for her, because she’s our protagonist, which makes it hard to take her seriously as a villain in any other context. Cruella seems like a pretty chill person, how’d she get so evil between one movie and another?
So Cruella is caught between two sides of itself. Two different colors of hair, if you will. On the one hand, the white side wants to be a fun, family-friendly kid’s movie. On the other hand, the black side wants to lean into the dark, campy, overtly evil villainy that is very much NOT child-friendly. The interpretation of Cruella DeVil as an embodiment of the 70s British punk scene and counterculture is inspired, and Emma Stone has the voice down perfectly, even if her accent sometimes falters (this isn’t helped by certain lazy Americanisms that glare like someone blinding you with a flashlight: ‘Thanks guys!’ ‘Really??’).
What’s frustrating is that Disney is ignoring the right market for a villain franchise. Make it for young adults; Gen Z-ers who might not have a direct relationship with the cartoon or Glenn Close version, but are familiar enough with the character to recognize her, and mature enough to handle a story about being ground down by a cutthroat but glamorous industry, and how much it really costs to be fabulous. As deliciously ostentatious as the visuals are, this movie is saying the quiet part way too quietly to have any impact.
Also, for those of you keeping score (maybe just me), here are a couple of other symptoms with which you can diagnose lazy writing: having characters know each other since childhood so you don’t have to come up with reasons for them to hang out; secret biological relationships so you don’t have to think of explanations for characters being drawn to each other; revenge stories for shorthand motivation; important documents that have no reason to exist and should have been thrown in the fire instead of hidden in secret compartments for someone to discover; and finally, strange physical character traits being a birthmark instead of an acquisition so you don’t have to explain why this person is Different From The Rest. Sorry, but it’s just a silly choice to have Cruella be born with that hair.
4/10. 2 for great costume design, 1 for cute dog stunts, and 1 for a killer soundtrack. It would have been 2, but they used “One Way or Another” in a montage, which is outdated and gauche. The real Cruella would disapprove.