It says something about our time that a story that once featured cute, heroic Dalmatians is now centered on its adversary, a larger-than-life villain (just like sleeping Beauty turned into the saga of Maleficent). Parents should be aware of the PG-13 rating Cruella, earned through a series of nightmarish scenes of death, abandonment, and vengeance. Some children may soak up all of this as a pretense, but others might have a different reaction to so much dark matter. I fall into the latter category; I was horrified.
Over time, I’ve made my peace with the movie, which is long but not boring. The story of a strange little girl (think Wednesday Addams) who has been wronged and takes revenge on the woman who ruined her life. His extensive screenplay is attributed to four people in total, but the real charm will not be found in a script: the elegant, expressive costumes by Jenny Beavan and the imaginative production design by Fiona Crombie. Part of the result is wickedly clever, while a lot of it is just mean. It takes more than an hour to reach the turning point where the orphaned Estella (Emma Stone) assumes a new identity as the diabolical Cruella. In this guise, she plans to infiltrate the world of high fashion and destroy a bossy designer named The Baroness, played by the incomparable Emma Thompson in high-camp fashion.
Adults in the audience will no doubt respond to her clever performance and the use of anthemic pop songs like Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and Nina Simone’s rendition of “Feeling Good”. Like so much else in Cruella it will sail over the heads of its younger audience. Maybe that’s a good thing.
A welcome comic relief is provided by two clumsy burglars named Horace and Jasper (based on the original Walt Disney animated film), who are beautifully played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. They bring a touch of humanity to the story as well as humor. Stone gives her everything as the diabolical title character who is hard to find as she takes on the role of disruptor – for reasons we think we know, until the breakup finally reveals it all.
After we got through the press Cruella leaves an inexcusably weak punchline and postscript. Surely one of the writers or directors, Craig Gillespie, could have come up with something better to take away.
Movie fans will enjoy a brief tribute to Tallulah Bankhead, who was an inspiration for Cruella de Vil at the time. (Betty Lou Gerson, who provided the voice for the character in the cartoon, was a busy radio actress who sounded a lot like the colorful Miss B.) As inside jokes say, it’s not bad, but like everything else about the picture, it’s hardly the whole Worth the effort.