‘Cruella’ Doesn’t Deliver the Evil Villain We Have Come to Hate

Forrest Hartman

 

‘Cruella’

STARRING: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry

DIRECTOR: Craig Gillespie

CRITICAL RATING: 2 stars out of 4

AVAILABLE: May 28 in theaters or on Disney+ with Premiere Access

 

We’ve seen a number of enjoyable artistic works meant to flesh out the origins of iconic fictional villains. The most successful examples are probably Joker, writer-director Todd Phillips’ gut-wrenching look at aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck’s transition from troubled loaner to murderous psychopath, and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a sympathetic novel that will forever change your perspective on The Wizard of Oz.

 

In 2014, Disney entered the evil-backstory game with a pleasing-enough reimagining of Sleeping Beauty villain Maleficent. The success of that picture (it inspired a sequel) paved the way for similar works. Now we have Cruella, a flashy, star-studded look at the evil mastermind from the 101 Dalmations franchise.

 

Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, The Finest Hours) had a decent palette, with Emma Stone in the title role and Emma Thompson cast as the Baroness, a powerful fashion designer who serves both as Cruella’s mentor and foil. Alas, stars can only cast so much light. 

 

Stone and Thompson are great talents when they have solid material to work with, but Cruella never finds sound footing. The allure of a classic-villain backstory is – presumably – to show fans how the person they’ve despised for all these years became so despicable. Questions abound. Were they born the epitome of evil, like Damien in The Omen, or were they overcome by all-consuming power, like young Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise? The answers to such questions are often ridiculously satisfying. The problem, of course, is that they can also be frustrating, especially when -- as happens in Cruella -- the filmmakers don’t pay proper homage to story canon.  

 

 

The Cruella that most Disney fans remember is supposed to be so evil that there’s a song about her. Remember the little ditty that states, “if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will”? Well, the Cruella we get in Gillespie’s live-action take isn’t scary at all … not even at the end. In other words, filmmakers do a good job making Cruella sympathetic, but they never transition her to the villain she must become.

 

At most, the Cruella we see in this new reading is rude … particularly to her much-put-upon henchmen, Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). Trouble is, not even that portion of the story is handled well. Cruella’s relationship with Horace and Jasper starts pleasantly enough, with the three acting as fast friends. Then it makes a never-explained transition where Cruella calls all the shots and Horace and Jasper are simply along for the ride. There is no slow arc to explain the shifting power dynamic, just as there is no slow transition where Cruella goes from good to evil. And remember that the fate of this franchise depends on her becoming evil. This is a character, after all, who is OK with slaughtering puppies in the interest of manufacturing a fur coat. If the character never makes that transition, all the commentary about materialism and greed that’s key to the original story is out the window. One might note that – since Disney is telling the story – the refusal to condemn greed is intentional. Whether that’s the case or not, it doesn’t work as an artistic choice.

 

The fact that Cruella fails at the story level is a shame because it looks – as one might expect – beautiful. Wonderful art direction is a Disney Hallmark, and everything from Stone’s constantly changing outfits to the inspired set design are alluring. Stone, of course, is likable enough as the character she has been asked to play … even if that character bares little relation to the film’s title. Thompson – like Stone – is an A-list talent, and she delivers a performance that is appropriately melodramatic for the work at hand. Fry and Hauser are also terrific throughout. In fact, they are highlights of the project -- so much so that many viewers will feel for them when Cruella inexplicably decides they’re beneath her.

 

 

Cruella also boasts a wonderful soundtrack that plays like an extra character in the film. Plot points are frequently punctuated by undulating readings of classic songs ranging from the Doors’ “Five to One” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” to Ike and Tina Turner’s soulful cover of the Led Zeppelin classic “Whole Lotta Love.” In fact, the film is almost worth recommending as a music video. Almost.

 

A villain backstory should give greater insight into a character. Instead, Cruella seems like an alternative-universe reading where the puppies are the real baddies. And we know that can’t be true because … puppies!

 

Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a longtime entertainment journalist who teaches at the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at California State University, Chico.

 

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