Cruella, starring Emma Stone as the dog-killing Disney villainess, is the newest addition to Disney’s new live-action remake series. It reimagines Cruella de Vil into a young orphan named Estella, who loses her mother in a tragic Dalmatian-related accident and rises to the top of the 1970s London fashion scene. Estella creates the alter ego Cruella to face off against the formidable Baroness (Emma Thompson), the last person standing in Estella’s way to greatness.
Cruella is at its best when it is not trying to be a Cruella de Vil origin story. The movie excels when it’s a fashion heist movie and an exercise in opulent, campy drama. The shoehorned inclusion of Dalmatians, random references to the 101 Dalmatian film, awkwardly forced backstory of minor characters, and an attempt to set up a sequel derail what otherwise could be a quirky The Devil Wears Prada meets action-adventure heist movie.
Of course, we probably wouldn’t get a movie like Cruella without it being attached to a Disney IP. The Disney live-action remakes have been frustrating across the board because they have, at times, given opportunities to great filmmakers and actors and allowed for tremendous creativity and talent, but because they are attached to Disney and must have quadrant, mass-appeal, they can never really take risks. Cruella tiptoes the line of being edgy and weird, but can never really go for it because it’s a Disney film, so it ends up being as punk and revolutionary as a Hot Topic Store. And I enjoy a good trip to Hot Topic every now and then! There’s an audience for it. But I couldn’t watch Cruella without the nagging sensation that there was a stronger film within it.
That being said, there are good things in the film. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are both excellent, chewing scenery and taking the lacking screenplay and using sheer charisma to make the dialogue halfway compelling. The costumes really are marvelous. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Jasper and Houser are the hearts of the film. It’s an energetic and fast-paced movie that is a lot of fun to watch, no matter how unsatisfying it ultimately is.
The big question though: does Cruella redeem the infamous villain? How evil does Cruella allow Cruella to be? Does it have anything interesting to say about Cruella and her wickedness?
The friend I saw the film with had an interesting remark. She said that it was “post-modern”, because the movie is all about Estella shedding her identity to create a whole new one. She uses fashion to create and embody this new persona, and then– spoiler!– literally kills off her old self. One postmodern view of identity posits that there isn’t one true, solid self. We aren’t defined by how we were made. We’re defined by how we make and present ourselves. We’re always changing; we’re a product of circumstance, and therefore can design ourselves however we like. True authenticity is actually a type of performance, the performance of what you want and believe yourself to really be.
So it’s fitting that all of these pieces- fashion, self-creation, individual moral relativism, and an origin story– all come together in Cruella. Here, Cruella gets to be sympathetic and embrace her fabulously evil side. She gets to create a new identity for herself and still be loved by her old friends, no matter how poorly she treats them. She gets to be an inspirational girlboss and trample on others for her own career success. She gets to be known as the villain who kills puppies and this movie completely cuts out her hurting any animals. She gets to have revenge on those who wrong her and never receive any lasting consequences for her own evil actions. In these contradictions, Cruella presents a fantasy for the audience, since most of us also want to be able to behave “brilliant, bad, and a little mad,” and still imagine ourselves to be a redeemable antihero. And Disney gets to make a movie about a villain and make her decent enough to sell merchandise!