Some boots are made for walking. Others? Well, others are made for side-stepping, it feels like. Take Disney’s latest effort, Craig Gillespie’s Cruella, a rambunctious and fashionable affair that demystifies the studio’s foremost icon of camp and villainy, Cruella DeVil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Everything about the new film—except for the fashion and the two Emmas top-billing, of course—feels aggressively average, which is weird being that the title character’s whole schtick is despising the notion of “being normal”.
The film starts on a funny note. “Oh no, we’re starting here,” she asks, sarcastically, seemingly aware from the outset that over-explaining her character isn’t the best foot forward. Ever since she was little, Estella—as an adult played by Emma Stone—harbors within her a crasser, angstier self she calls Cruella. To nobody’s surprise, she’s taught to pare down and color within the lines, an origin story that I feel is stock for marginally likable villainesses and anti-heroines. Trouble is, Cruella isn’t exactly the Mr. Hyde to her Dr. Jekyll. Estella and Cruella feel like completely removed characters, entirely separate, and honestly just shoddily worked-in.
Thankfully, Stone plays her with such a panache worthy of Jenny Beavan’s exceptional fashion, even when the screenplay weighs her down. She navigates three disparate arcs ably—from the soap opera open, to the girlboss-y climb, and finally the revenge plot—sustaining a level of camp and verve that bounces well with Emma Thompson, who plays a megalomaniacal fashion mogul, referred to as The Baroness. If there’s anything great to champion here, it’s these three women who are objectively great at their craft.
Because all the rest is stale. You’d think that for all its hooting about smashing capitalism, breaking the rules, and dismantling the elite, it would have something meaningful to say, but sitting through it for two hours I still fail to recognize any. It’s as if Disney is hard-stuck in this misguided notion that, in a post-#MeToo world, raising your fists and mouthing the words of change are enough. The 70’s London backdrop would have been the perfect setting for a truly progressive picture that minds the issues it talks about. Instead, we’ve got a film equivalent of a twentysomething Twitter user that subtweets everything that can lend their reputation some intellect and woke points, without ever coming to terms with their audience the reality of the issues they touch on.
Call it the Disney effect. Because what else should we call a studio’s active demystification and defanging of its most interesting villains (remember Maleficent?). Cruella, in particular, has devolved into a cautiously zany mean girl with an eye for fabrics and silhouettes. Yet another misunderstood character with wear and tear in their soul, willing to break bad, but never too bad that they cross over being brand-safe. Disney’s execs seem to think you’d be persuaded that the real DeVil would have the temperance not to skin a Dalmatian for fur. The real Cruella would have, of course. So much of the impact of seeing her cosplay as “The Future” has dissipated long before she skids to the fashion event.
Ultimately, any fun you have with Cruella will be dogged by the feeling that this heavily modded DeVil is designed solely for the purpose of selling out black-and-white wigs for Halloween. And that’s the most frustrating bit, that despite its game cast and crew, the film refuses to break away from the status quo.