VOD film review: Cruella
Number of dead dogs0
Cathy Brennan | On 28, May 2021
Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong
Where to watch Cruella online in the UK: Disney+
Previous Disney incarnations of Cruella de Vil have skewed socially conservative. The villain symbolises everything a woman shouldn’t be in an ideal patriarchy: vain, individualistic and completely unfeeling. Originally a demon when animated, Glenn Close transformed Cruella into a clown for 1996’s live-action 101 Dalmatians. Close’s rendition indicated that Cruella’s a wrong’un through her disgust at the Dearly’s plans to start a family. Disney can’t sell that with such ease nowadays and so Cruella is an attempt at reinvention. Director Craig Gillespie’s previous film I, Tonya was a critical look at the way society punishes women of the “wrong sort” and so he makes an ideal fit here. It’s a shame, then, that Cruella utterly fails at delivering the transgressive subversion promised by its punk-era setting.
In this version, Cruella’s birth name is Estella, with Cruella a nickname given by her mother (Emily Beecham) whenever she acted up as a child. After her mother is killed under mysterious circumstances, Cruella is forced to grow up on the streets of London, befriending fellow orphans Jasper (Noel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). Together, they survive as pickpockets but Cruella’s ambition to become a fashion designer brings her into the orbit of the Baroness (Emma Thompson), an imperious fashion mogul with ties to Cruella’s past.
Comparisons have been made to Todd Phillips’ Joker, yet Cruella’s story of plucky orphans and class-spanning intrigue is more reminiscent of Dickens, with a helping of Count of Monte Cristo-style vengeance thrown in for good measure. As a result, the twisty plotting of Cruella ensures that there is momentum throughout its two-hour runtime, but this is let down by weak characterisation.
Thompson’s Baroness suffers the most in this regard – a character whose hinted-at potential for depth is cruelly curtailed by a single line from Mark Strong’s John the Valet. What becomes apparent as the film goes on is that the sexism of previous Cruella portrayals is merely offloaded on to the Baroness, while Stone’s Cruella keeps the marketable iconic qualities of the original character and is given a bog-standard tragic backstory to make her sympathetic to the audience.
Motivations are so faintly sketched that their purpose in moving the plot forward becomes painfully transparent. Cruella wants revenge because that gets us to our next set piece and costume change. There are so many fashion galas that they all start to melt into one another, as do Jenny Beavan’s overripe costumes, which may pop the eye in promotional stills but appear muddy in motion and lack the DIY grit of the period. Disney films can sometimes provide visions of history and culture with all the cracks plastered over. Such an approach is farcical when it comes to the giant fissure that is 1970s Britain.
There’s a faint queer pulse to Cruella in its affirmation of chosen families. Cruella herself gradually picks up allies throughout the film, including dress shop owner Artie (John McCrea). There’s also a romantic vibe to Artie and Horace’s relationship. It’s so slight that Disney can proclaim LGBTQ+ representation while also making these moments easy to cut should the need arise. It’s yet another sign that, despite a diet punk aesthetic, Cruella remains a product of the Mouse and is uncommitted to genuine risk and character.
The psychology of the characters is threadbare and that makes it difficult to care about them or the story as a whole. There’s enough in Stone’s Cruella for the film to be proclaimed as being about trauma but chip away at that surface and there’s not much to find, leaving one feeling empty about the film as a whole. Paul Walter Hauser delivering a terrible cockney accent should bring joy, but in Cruella it merely elicits a resigned shrug.
As one of Disney’s most iconic villains, a film about Cruella de Vil was brimming with potential. There’s no pleasure to be had in reporting the depth of Cruella’s failure.
Cruella is available on Disney+ (for a Premier Access fee of £19.99), as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.