Cruella (2021)

“From the very beginning I always made a statement. Not everyone appreciated that.”

Loosely creative, devilishly entertaining, and just a bit too predictable for its own good, Cruella tries to spin its familiar record in a unique way with too many channeled needle drops, making for a movie that’s both good and original in spots but entirely bad and derivative during others. Solid performances, Oscar worthy costume design, and an ambitious – if sometimes stumbling – tightrope tonal act from director Craig Gillespie keep this messy origin story from dissolving into loose pile of shapeless nothing. There’s enough bobby pins stuck in the right places to hold it together for its runway walk, making it backstage just before unraveling for all to see.

I’ve found most of Disney’s attempts to rebrand their villains as plagued anti-heroes burdened by bad luck as a rather strange choice, and Cruella is once again yet another fully fledged origin story to tell us how in the devil this character came to be in the first place. The open is far too long (as is the film itself), introducing us to a hellion of a troublemaker before drastically leaping up in age, abruptly segueing to Estella (Emma Stone) with her mostly pointless thieving mates after showing us how she landed in such a dodgy spot. The opening act lacks a cohesive tone but still works well enough, even though it takes 45 minutes of rolling this lemon before the insides finally get a little bit juicy.

Class warfare, economic discrepancies, and iconoclastic reform of what separates haute couture from sexy and salvaged attire aren’t what you might expect from a PG-13 Disney film, but that’s exactly what director Craig Gillespie delivers during the arresting middle of this otherwise middling picture. Estella embraces the Cruella of her Robert Louis Stevenson inspired split personality, battling her boss and mentor the Baroness (Emma Thompson) in an attempt to both advance fashion tendencies and to make a name for herself at the same time. For about 30 minutes or so, Cruella is a smashing good time, spotlighting a culture clash between the class schemas of paltry peasants and the bourgeoisie appeasing to proletariats. It’s ambitious, thoughtful, provocative, visually political storytelling about social mobility through art that could have been weaved throughout the rest of the movie to great effect.

What I found off-putting was how unnecessary the origin story element itself actually is, and how it only adds layers to a sometimes stiff mannequin that’s already overdressed. The hiding of “Cruella’s” real identity in the workplace feels as believable as a pair of Clark Kent glasses, her orphan upbringing is basically that of Bruce Wayne meets Oliver!, and the film oddly devolves from Batman ethics to a debased Joker moral code, making this strange art heist/power struggle story all the more confusing. Cruella is an enjoyable enough movie though, especially because of the two fantastic female led performances, but I’m not so sure it’s a cohesive or edgy enough endeavor either. Some things are too black, others too white, and the careful middle part is too focused on keeping the tone separate yet equal. The title spells out the who and the story gives us the what, when and where. Cruella is missing the all important why. It’s too hard to know why we should even care in the first place. I’m not sure we’re given an original reason.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the angle.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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