MPAA Rating: PG-13
CNS Rating: A -III
Reel Rating: 2 out of 5
In the fantastic parody musical Twisted, each Disney villain is given the opportunity to justify his evil. One by one they sing:
Ursula: “I only wish to reclaim what was mine!”
Scar: “I only wished to improve relations between the races!”
Gaston: “I only wished to save her!”
Hook: “I only wished to teach the boy responsibility!”
Suddenly, Cruella de Vil bursts onto the stage and belts, “I only wanted to make a coat out of puppies!” The others turn and scowl in disgust. “Why would you want to do that?” Jafar grimaces. It is the perfect description of the character the American Film Institute once rated the 39th greatest villain in film history. But Cruella, Disney’s latest live action redemption of a classic baddie, completely ruins this vision. Director Craig Gillespie’s un-iconic interpretation certainly isn’t “the Devil,” and it’s barely even cruel.
Like every young girl in movies these days, Cruella (Emma Stone) was “a little different.” Even at ten, she proudly sported monochromatic hair, creates fabulous outfits, and punched male bullies at recess. When her mother is murdered before her eyes, she runs away and joins a set of thieves, Horace and Jasper (Joel Fry and Paul Hauser), determined to make something of herself by any means (usually illegal) necessary. She eventually lands a job designing clothes for the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a cartoonish version of Miranda Priestly complete with her own discount Stanly Tucci. At first, things are looking up as her boss expresses an unusual lack of contempt for the young artist’s gowns. Yet things quickly go south with a tale of betrayal, one-upmanship, murder, and worse that would make even Eve Harrington blush.
It must be said that the always brilliant Emma Stone gives everything she has to this performance, but it was handicapped from the beginning. Cruella does things that are mean and selfish, but never cruel and even has a redemptive arc despite not starting out all that bad. Her most important trait was hatred of dogs and desire to turn them into garments. Yet Stone’s Cruella loves dogs, even dogs who do not like her. In fact, her own yellow terrier Buddy (Bobby) plays a key role in her schemes. Instead, the filmmakers have chosen to emphasize Cruella’s affinity for fashion, which is not unique. It could have been any skill taken to extremes—like drumming in Whiplash or figure skating in the Harding-Kerrigan feud. Despite the insistence of her younger self, she isn’t “special.”
This might be blasphemy coming from a man who rarely wear anything but polo shirts and cargo shorts, but the fashion isn’t great either. The sumptuous dresses the Baroness fawns over are gaudy, pretentious, and impractical. The best designs are the simple clothes Cruella wears around town, like leather jackets and black skirts. These outfits do a great job representing the punk aesthetic of London at time. Sadly, she too gets caught up in the world of high fashion and is soon designing fare even more sickening. Unfortunately, this film is a shoo-in for the Oscar for Best Costume Design, which often goes for the “biggest” over the “best.”
Cruella represents yet another witness to the disturbing trend where Disney, under the control of Bob Iger, tries to update one of their former classics to 21st century progressive culture. In 2017, I wrote about this in my review of their updated version of Beauty and the Beast:
Now, Disney has turned on their own center, going after the very ethics that made them so memorable in the first place. They have no reason to be ashamed. It was their heartfelt and brilliant depiction of Judeo-Christian morality that made Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid into masterpieces of cinema. Yet today, Disney shuns its own legacy.
Cruella is a smart, confident, driven woman and cannot be evil. To think she could be evil is now considered ancient, patriarchal thinking. Yet what remains when her villainy is taken away is a dry, transparent story that is among the most average of Disney’s dependably average live action updates.
There was a way to make a compelling story about a younger Cruella. In the original novel by Dodie Smith, Cruella is given a more fleshed out backstory. In the 1920s and 30s, she was a famous, fashionable socialite, married to rich older man and always on the cover of the best gossip magazines. By the 1960s, she was old, widowed, and forgotten. Her desire to create a dog coat was one last gasp to restore her former glory. That would be a Cruella worth watching and joyfully hating. Instead, the audience is given this. Disney hasn’t made a single good film since John Lasseter left in 2018, and that’s no coincidence.
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