WARNING: Spoilers for Cruella
Hollywood seems to be on a villain kick recently. Maleficent got two films, Joker got a film, and now Disney has given us an origin story for Cruella. Was this needed? Does her story need to be expanded upon? Well the obvious answer is NO. But Disney felt differently. Here we are given an origin story for the wonderful puppy killer that is Cruella de Vil. And while this movie isn’t 100% unnecessary, there is actually a very good film in here. Sadly that film has been swallowed up by ridiculous and unnecessary plot turns, awkward editing, and a pace that slogs through at the speed of a snail.
We open on a young Cruella (known as Estella as a child) with her mother (Catherine). This opening scene, the entire movie in fact, is narrated by Emma Stone’s older Cruella. None of it is necessary at all. It is simply there to keep things moving and to point out obvious character progression. If I’m honest, the whole narration hinders more than helps.
Estella was born with black hair on one side and white hair on the other. Yup. So she’s different. She’s teased and ridiculed at school. Not one to suffer fools, she fights back; which causes trouble with said schools. Catherine is at her wit’s end and takes Estella with her to a party to ask her boss for more time on a project. Estella sneaks out of the car to see the party and ends up being chased by three Dalmatians. But when Estella hides, the dogs turn and attack her mom in a “freak accident” which Estella feels responsible for.
My mind was boggled from the very beginning.
Why did the Dalmatians run her mom off the edge? Did they see her and think “little girl get big! Get her!” Did they go after her because they smelled the same? They just turn and make a beeline to Catherine for seemingly no reason. This question is answered later in the film: Estella discovers that The Baroness (Cathrine’s boss who is played by Emma Thompson) blew a dog whistle, ordering her dogs to purposefully knock Catherine off the cliff. This makes enough sense. But I must say I found the moment so awkward in the beginning that I couldn’t stop thinking about it until the reveal. You don’t want your audience distracted from the story being told. That is what happened here and I think it comes down to the shot choice. A clearer shot would have helped me through that moment.
After becoming an orphan, Estella meets a young Horace and Jasper. The three grow up together, picking pockets to make ends meet. This was a fun sequence. To me, the idea of a crime caper with those three pulling the heist is a wonderful idea for a story. But along the way, Estella realizes she wants more in life. She wants to be a fashion designer and ends up getting a job at a dress shop. After a long night of drinking (which also happened to be one of my favorite moments) Estella destroys a dress and gets fired. But luck would have it that the shop is owned by The Baroness who likes Estella’s style enough to offer her a job. This is Estella’s dream job, but her boss in an absolute nightmare. Sound familiar? This section of the film certainly takes cues from The Devil Wears Prada and is not afraid to show it. However, Estella soon finds out that The Baroness killed her mother (gasp). Thus begins a plan of revenge to destroy The Baroness’s reputation and steal back her mother’s necklace (which evil Baroness now has). Phew! That was a lot of set up.
Estella adopts the persona of “Cruella” and begins crashing The Baroness’s fashion shows with outrageous displays of her own fashion, while simultaneously setting into motion a long con working for her as Estella.
As the film progresses, Estella starts leaning on the Cruella personality more and more. The film even hints that she will one day want to murder puppies for coats. This scene is actually very odd. In her attempt to break The Baroness, Cruella kidnaps her dogs. She then makes a comment amount turning them into coats. Cut to: Cruella hosting an illegal fashion show wearing a Dalmatian-patterned coat. The Baroness sees this and believes she killed her dogs. Cut to: Cruella arriving home to find Jasper and Horace tied up by The Baroness and her goons. She ties Cruella to a chair, lights the room on fire, and leaves. Only on her way out does she tell a henchman to bring her dogs, finally revealing then that the dogs are in fact okay. What? If we as the audience are to believe Cruella killed the dogs, would it not be important to confirm this is in fact not the case? Why didn’t we see The Baroness find her dogs alive? Why was that moment treated like an afterthought? It was such an awkward cut. One moment we think the dogs are dead, the next, they’re just fine.
Cruella is saved by The Baroness’s butler (played by Mark Strong) who then reveals that The Baroness is Cruella’s true birth mother (double gasp). This twist was 100% UNNECESSARY. It was like the film needed a reason to tip Cruella over the edge. And for her to have the wealth the character is know for having at the end. But why not just have her kill The Baroness and steal her fortune like the film was telling me it was going to do? Would forging documents not be part of the heist they’re pulling? This plot point felt tacked on and forced. The trajectory of Cruella was going fine: she loses herself and becomes the person she wants to destroy. That’s perfect. But now it’s like “oh, I was always destined to be psycho”.
This moment feels ripped straight from 2019's Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix.
But what worked in Joker, doesn’t work here. The discovery works there because it takes away the only thing Arthur has left. He realizes the one person he always relied on was never reliable in the first place, making him feel like his diagnosis was inevitable. But in Cruella, the reveal feels like an unneeded push to make the character worse than they already were, while simultaneously making her seem even MORE justified. But all does is complicate an ending we already knew was coming.
Also, and I cannot overstate this, the Dalmatians are 100% CGI!
Why? I know Dalmatians are notoriously tough to train, but surely there has to be someone in the world that can do it. I’m perfectly fine with a digital dog being added here and there for certain movements or actions that are either tough to get right, or impossible to do safely. That’s fine. But the dogs are digital even when they’re being walked, or sitting on a couch, or even sleeping! Several other dogs also have too many digital doubles, but they at least had a real dog in some shots. The only real Dalmatians in this entire film are the puppy Pongo and Lady that Anita receives at the end (because OF COURSE this had to set up a new 101 Dalmatians film). If there were other real Dalmatians in the film, I did not see them.
Call this film 101 Digital Dalmatians.
But the thing that kills this film more than anything is the pacing. Cruella discovers the truth about her mom roughly 30 minutes in. Makes sense, as this is what drives her to begin the plan for revenge. So why did those 30 minutes feel like an hour? We have way too many plot points to slog through in order to even get to this moment. The film feels the need to dump all this information on you in the hopes that you will form a connection with Estella. But it’s too much all at once. The film tries too hard to get you to like her, which in turn does the exact opposite.
Emma shines in the Cruella personality. But she doesn’t adopt that personality until 50 minutes into the film. Cruella clocks in at 2 hours and 14 minutes! Granted, credits start at 2 hours and 4 minutes, but still that is too long. This film needed to cut roughly 20 to 30 minutes of footage. Cut down the opening. And certainly cut down the amount of musical montages. This movie felt like a music video at times. It probably can’t go 6 minutes without adding a new song. Several of the songs don’t even fit the time period in which the film takes place. Also, cut that completely unnecessary twist!
The film should have trimmed the opening, then cut to Estella already working at the dress shop while pulling petty crimes with Jasper and Horace on the side. Get her working for The Baroness much quicker; we need to get to the heist portion fast because it’s the most fun. Focus on Cruella and the gang pulling a big heist on the woman who killed her mother. Her real mother. Throughout said heist, Cruella gets more and more obsessed with destroying this woman, so much so that by the end of the film, she has become the very thing she swore to destroy. That’s all you need. If this film was a tight 1 hour 45 minutes, it would have been perfect.
But there is good in here. Mainly Jasper and Horace (played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, respectively). These two gentlemen are perfection. They are absolutely hilarious and steal the movie. In fact, I would 100% endorse these two playing the new Wet Bandits in a Home Alone film. Paul Hauser has wonderful physical comedic timing. And his love for his one-eyed chihuahua is adorable. This film is worth a single watch solely to see these two bumble through every scheme they hatch. The film also looks wonderful and has some fantastic production design. There is a definite sense of style. The dresses and costumes are quite wonderful. It all certainly looks great.
“Police have no leads” flashes across the screen as Cruella drives away in a super slow dump truck while wearing a GIANT dress. Couldn’t catch her, huh?
The guard who sleeps through everything was probably the funniest gag in the film. Jasper and Horace for the win.
The moth dress reveal was genuinely cool.
Don’t you ever do that to "Come Together" ever again. That song is perfect on its own and doesn’t need you to “update it”.
Cruella took her last name from a car? LAME.
Bottom Line: there is a really great film hidden within this bloated mess. Jasper and Horace are perfection, and Emma Stone is great as Cruella (once she finally starts being Cruella). But the film takes way too long to do anything and has some very awkward editing at times. And nothing can save that horrible twist from convoluting everything within that last half hour. Cut the fat and you’d have a great film. As it stands now, this film is very much a mixed bag. Come for Cruella, stay for Horace and Jasper… and ignore the CGI Dalmatians. It’s worth a watch, but probably not multiple.