Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Dana Fox, Tony McNamara
Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong, John McCrea
Everybody loves dogs, right? Ok, not everybody, but certainly most people. Movies about dogs are usually pretty great and can easily pull in an audience of all ages. Disney’s original 1961 animation One Hundred and One Dalmatians has been a classic in Disney collections since its release on VHS in 1992 (at that time it was the sixth best-selling video of all time). Based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, the cartoon was followed by a straight-to-video sequel (2003), a live-action adaptation (1996) and a live-action sequel (2000). The latter two may be most well-known for Glenn Close’s performance as the villainous Cruella de Vil, a role she is forever associated with. Until now, perhaps? As Emma Stone steps into the fur coat, has Disney hit its mark once again with another prequel revolving around a villain’s origin story, or have these dogs had their day?
Opening in the 1960s, a young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), later to be nicknamed “Cruella” for her rebellious and somewhat cruel streak, finds herself falling in with a pair of young homeless thieves, Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald). Fast forward ten years to the ‘70s and the boom of punk culture, adult Estella (Stone) has found her passion for fashion and is keen to work for the queen of fashion, Baroness von Hellman (Thompson). Estella comes to learn just how evil the Baroness really is and hatches a plan with Jasper (Fry) and Horace (Hauser) to bring her down, and thus Cruella comes to full fruition in order to exact some righteous revenge on the Baroness, completely shedding her identity as Estella to become who she was born to be.
If Maleficent (2014) has taught us anything, it’s that there’s always room for a villain’s backstory within Disney’s repertoire. In this day and age there’s a lot to be said for getting full disclosure on how and why a person “went wrong”. But, funnily enough, this isn’t really so for Cruella as a character. Her backstory, while a little sad, I suppose, lacks any real point of sympathy. She was, for all intents and purposes, born to be bad. This can create a struggle to find anything to latch on to so we can feel anything other than contempt for her. It is perhaps to be expected, as Cruella de Vil only ever comes across as a megalomaniac with an obsession with fur in all her inc. But on the other hand, might we expect more from this kind of back story now? As mentioned, Maleficent gave us a reason for her villainy, as she fell into that revenge trope, her good nature becoming corrupted – Cruella also goes down a similar route, but it seems there wasn’t anything about her character to be vindicated – she’d essentially always been Cruella.
The plot itself is also just… weird. Going into the film knowing nothing but the basics of Cruella de Vil (as most of us do from One Hundred and One Dalmatians) and with virtually zero expectations is the best way to tackle this film, as the events that occur seem quite off-the-cuff, as though there was a screenplay brainstorm and the most random ideas that don’t really flow together were selected. As backstories go, this isn’t what I expected for Cruella at all, not to mention her already being acquainted with Horace and Jasper (this bothers me nearly as much as Clark Kent already knowing Lois Lane and Lex Luthor before he became Superman in the TV show Smallville). I appreciate the imagination behind it, but it just feels… off. What’s more, the soundtrack was off-putting for me – if it had any more over-played mainstream songs, it may as well have been Now! That’s What I Call A Cliché Soundtrack.
What also feels a little off, and I hate to say it, is Emma Stone’s performance. Yes, her English accent is fine, and her physical appearance suits the character, but her performance is just very Emma Stone. I found myself finding it hard to get into the character when all I could see was Stone performing in that geeky way that she’s generally known for in comedies. Cruella’s exploration of the punky fashions of the 1970s was an excellent idea (perhaps the only excellent idea), but Stone is no Glenn Close (despite Stone being an Academy Award winner and Close annoyingly still not), but as a whole the character is written with style over substance. Counteracting this is the dame who can do no wrong – Thompson is a villain as villains should be. Her Baroness outshines Cruella, which is kind of shocking considering Cruella is supposed to be a puppy-killer. If anything, I’d like a backstory on the Baroness. I would be willing to bet good money that hers is a sad affair. Thompson is elegant in fantastic costumes and her performance fills the high-fashion boots that Close left behind. Fry and Hauser are also fun and gimmicky as Jasper and Horace, respectively, with Fry in particular providing some much-needed pathos, even if it isn’t much. And American actor Hauser deserves endless praise for his cockney accent – Dick Van Dyke could stand to take a few lessons.
Unlike Maleficent, Cruella fails to take us on a journey to better understand why she is the way that she is in the time of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Whilst there are some performances and excellent costuming that make up for a little of what it misses, overall it does not hit its mark. Perhaps that was the intent – how could anyone ever feel empathy for someone who wants to kill a litter of puppies just to make a fur coat? On the other hand, isn’t that the point of a villain’s origin story, to try to understand or see what could drive someone to do something so callous? Cruella doesn’t even provide us with any of the villainy Cruella de Vil is known for – no dogs were harmed, fictitiously or otherwise, in the making of this film. We’re given a weak reason for it being dalmatians specifically. I say bring back Glenn Close as an old and cranky Cruella who’s out to try and get the puppies just one last time. Then, and only then, can we let sleeping dogs lie.