Cruella ★★★½

The thing is, I was born brilliant. Born bad. And a little bit mad.

'70s British punk scene. Bad Girl Disney. Art direction looks straight out of peak Vogue shoot. De Vil Wears Prada. Fashion heist mash-up. Clown Princess of PG Crime. House of Emma. Reaches its zenith during the Fountain monologue. Choppy editing. Aggressively incessant use of songs for more than two hours. What's going on with the script? A bit overlong and fat in some places. Oscar for Jenny Beavan for Best Costume Design, no more competition, please. Best garbage dress ever.

I both admire and am puzzled by this current Disney approach in making feature films out of their villains catalogue, crafting a revisionist history where they're sympathetic and anti-heroic than truly villainous. For one, it's just that; an unnecessary revisionist account made to sway from an established continuity that'll undoubtedly cause fury out of Disney purists, mainly because of nostalgic reasons. For the other, it also allows for a new or added take that gives depth towards the seemingly evil villainous figures whose sole purpose is only to be an obstacle to the heroes and such. Quite frankly, I'm personally not so high on the first opinion as much as the second, if only that it can be utilized to provide further insight, aid in the idea that "people don't wake up evil", that there must be a reason or at least a tragedy befalling them to give way into what they'd become. Or perhaps, evil traits do not define a person. Such is the case for this real world of ours, and couldn't it be so also for the fictional Disney-verse? It'd then be a matter of taste whether the audience could relate themselves or try to understand the motives and psyche of a certain dog killer by the name of Cruella de Vil. If the Joker, the worst kind of notorious psychopathic killer in the DC universe, could receive a sympathetic Elseworlds treatment and be applauded for what he did, then why couldn't Cruella? Why do we need a movie about the Joker works in the same vein with why do we need a movie about Cruella - they're both serial killers of the bottom low and in most interpretations, the former is himself considered to be a symbol of anarchic evil, beholden to chaos as his bride. Yet all I see are songs of praises and relatability with the Joker while many are stunned and dumbfounded to think Cruella should receive another interpretation of her own. I don't know if there's some gender double standards thing going on but totally disregarding the movie just because you think Cruella should stay evil for the sake of being evil is, honestly, absurd. Even so, this is just a starter as I'm merely commenting on how so many people seemed to be opposed to the idea of this movie even before they could actually have the chance to see it properly. Whether or not its quality suffers or thrives, well, dearly continue reading below.

Written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, if there's one thing you can't fault Disney for doing is the fact that they actually try something new for this one. Although try as they might yet when the execution itself leaves a lot to be desired than hey, there's definitely problem in Houston. Sometimes I wonder if being subversive in a controversial way is really the corporation's current popular method in garnering much needed publicity in these days and age; as they say, any publicity is good publicity, and any stunt is a sure head-turner. Well, unless it involves a great deal of decrease in money. As for Cruella, Disney and its band of writers once again show the world how to ruin a potentially fabulous concept with a super sloppy and needlessly convoluted script writing until you realize not even half way through, that they don't even have any clue on how the story's supposed to go. Here, the narrative works more along the lines of Maleficent with surface sprinkles of Joker mixed in, turning a previously irredeemable villain with an affinity for skinning puppies for her fashion design into something of an antihero, or antivillain, whichever you prefer. The audience is treated to another different look for the dog killer, now a decade/s younger and painted as a rebellious poster punk girl with a naturally cruel streak since birth. As part of her sympathetic backstory, Cruella, and Estella, two sides of the same coin, is placed in '60s/'70s London as a child orphaned by the death of her poor yet well-meaning mother when she's thrown over a cliff by a group of Dalmatians (well, who'd figure?), leading to the gentle Estella (as compared to her mean side, Cruella) to be taken in by two young thieves, Jasper and Horace, forming a trio of successful heist group with the help of Estella's genius fashion designing capability. That's, up until they encounter the hottest on-demand and most ruthless haute couture businesswoman in the area, Baroness von Hellman, aka if Miranda Priestly is a supervillain. What ensues is one nasty and long battle of wits and upstages between Estella (as Cruella) and the Baroness, as the vigilante-esque former attempts not only to bring the latter's crimes unto the limelight but also to become the better of her in every way possible. In short, she needs to become more villainous than the villain in order to truly defeat her. At least, that's what the script says more than a couple of times throughout. But therein is the problem with the writing, however. The cinematic cardinal sin of "show, don't tell" is repeatedly sidestepped by the writers, considering how the dialogue tries to convey in so many different speeches that Cruella is supposedly bad and evil this and that, yet what is presented on-screen is less Harley Quinn and more Ocean's Eight. She's depicted as a thief, a robber, an idealistic vandal who uses her fashion luxury to make a statement; that she's better than the best of them all, better than the Baroness of Hellman Manor. Contrary to the key moment of the entirety of the film (where Cruella performs the typical villain monologue yet it's spinned to show her "embracing her destiny" in this) in which I expect something cruelly outrageous from her, though much of the dialogue that speaks to Cruella's nature remains mere dialogue. There's rarely a moment dedicated to showcase and justify the cruel in Estella in a way that warrants the name for her. Yes, she steals, she robs, she vandalizes, and she frequently treats Jasper and Horace like shit even though we've all done any one of these pretty much at least once in our life. You can argue that this is only a set up, a prequel of the first baby step through which the villain will go on to grow from, as she does naturally flirts around quite often with the idea of murder in which she mask every one of her murderous intention with the pretense of a joke. Though if the action doesn't correlate with the title then I fail to see how the essence of Cruella could be retained succinctly. Not to mention the infamous issue with the dogs that I would no doubt believe that that's the main reason why this would garner lots of attention from the public, and from which it'll receive backlash at due to the unorthodox approach.

However, given the alternate, Elseworld-esque reality that this seems to take place in (let's be real here, Ms Stone's image is too "pure" to even allow a consideration of her skinning those puppies), I'd wager they handle that issue the best they can without explicitly going one way or the other. For one, it leaves room for more deadly growth on behalf of Cruella while also proving to be slickly satisfying for audiences seeking for an contemporary "update" to the character, with the power of media and gossip prevalent in the entertainment sector playing an integral part in cementing the image of Cruella as she should always be known as. Also, it's made by Disney of the year 2021, as in, there's no way, and I mean no way, would they ever depict a titular character completely indulging in their evil ways. There are times where the writers obviously don't know what to exactly do with Cruella, whether she's a misunderstood but still narcissistic individual, a hero turned future villain, or just an bad person who's told to repress her evil side to always be Estella. And by the end, it seems as if they follow all three routes and ends the story with no definite conlusion on what kind of person she actually is. Overall, on the character of Cruella, I love how they toy with the "dog killing" aspect of her and kind of modernizes it in a way that also pays homage to the initial version, but the rest of her characterization feels outright lacklustre and indefinite compared to Maleficent, Joker and even Harley Quinn. She feels too "nice" even when she clearly says "I was born bad", and you can't have a nice character be named Cruella. On the other hand, the story is also very mediocre, repetitive in its acts and only slightly darker from the usual Disney live-action standards but not that much. I do like the implication regarding its ending and how it connects to 101 Dalmatians in sort of meta way, but the rest of the movie is mostly Cruella versus the Baroness in who can upstage one better than the other using fashion as conduit. There are some predictable twists and weird revelations later on that can be compared akin to The Devil Wears Prada meets Star Wars - yep, that's right. The emotional core of the story itself feels alarmingly by the book, mostly hollow and familiar because it is, like a sold out Tim Burton trying to revive his dark wonders but nope, there's just a shiny turd in it. Cruella's relationship with her mother is more Disney-fied than truly organic, and her tragic death (specifically by way of getting dropkicked by Dalmatians and thrown over a cliff, it's as funny as it sounds) is played out rather obligatorily. On paper, it's definitely a good starter to show how her character develops from the depressing event but it really lacks in something else when shown on-screen. Aside from Cruella's bitchy attitude, there's nothing in her backstory that differentiates her from the other Disney princesses.

Directing-wise, Craig Gillespie as director sure has a pretty good track record in his resume, from Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night remake, and I, Tonya, it seems as if Disney got themselves another directorial winner in case the script fails to make an impact on its own. Well, that's more or less its case right to the final product. How do you make an effective and genuinely entertaining movie out of two crazy fashionistas consistently trying to get the better out of one another for the entirety of its two hours long run time, and actually succeeds in it? And considering how critically weak the script is, it takes special care from Gillespie to lead the movie into becoming a giant pile of ambitious mess it's. High on visual lightning and quirky energy throughout, yet if the trailer comparisons to Joker didn't convince you of their relation to one another, then the visuals of this movie certainly will. Gillespie's stylishly kinetic and relentlessly (and I mean freaking relentless because this movie doesn't seem to know what the word chill means) paced Scorsese influenced directing makes for one heck of an exhausting theatrical experience, both a visual feast and a narrative mess that exposes the weaknesses of its script whilst also crystal clearly showing off the good spots. His filmmaking in Cruella is all on the surface, lacking the necessary intricacies and subtlety, but I'll be damned if that surface isn't a piece of artful entertainment like no other. The soaring, motivated and in your face camerawork recalls Goodfellas and Guy Ritchie's early works, adding unto multiple tracking shots and clever 360° tricks immersing and distracting the viewer at the same time. While DP Nicolas Karakatsanis's deliciously crisp photography captures Cruella in her truest natural habitat as well as the reimagined '70s London cityscape, the visuals appearing darkly marvelous at every turn of the frame, including the downright exceptional at times with its use of gloomy color palette mixed with motion blur. Werner loves that kind of stuff and the emphasis on colors on the dresses, the green smoke of the Dalmatian Spot dress presentation, the black and white of Cruella's decorated hair, and all the blurs in this practically spell out cinematic ANARCHY. One of my favorite shots has to be one where Cruella confronts the Baroness by surprising her gala party by arriving in a garbage truck, and clothed in an exquisite Hunger Games styled trash dress, in which Cruella then proceeds to hooks herself along the driving truck, laughing maniacally in what's framed as a side shot reminiscent of the iconic image of Heath Ledger's Joker and Joaquin Phoenix's Joker in their respective police car.

Seriously, there are a lot more of similar shots in the film like the aforementioned one above and here I'm completely in awe for every single one of them. They're also tied with Jenny Beavan's MASTERFUL costume design, as in, choke me to death with chlorine sandpaper while dressed in some Louis Vuitton masterful shit. The Oscars should already pass their vote thing in favor of Beavan because I don't believe there's any other film of this year that could rival her work for Cruella. She takes the fashion aspect in the movie's fashion heist essence dead seriously, presenting a vast array of dresses, skirts and costumes that would cause a massive saliva drop from even an individual with zero taste for anything fashion related, like Werner, for example. Them being called gorgeous would also be an understatement; they're truly an imaginative work of art where fashion and filmmaking converge seamlessly; as one showcase of the dress coming after the other feels as if they too are attempting to upstage one another, with Cruella and the Baroness as their vehicles rather than vice versa. These creative sequences of fashion montages are then overlapped with and blasted to the rebellion-themed soundtrack filled with '60s and '70s hits, from the Rolling Stones, Queen, the Doors, Connie Francis, The Clash, Blondie, Doris Day, Nancy Sinatra, and many freaking more. When I say "blast" though, I mean the very fact of blasting a cannonball through the roof because that's how the whole theater booms out loud to the various tunes like crazy. There's always a song put to the scene in every 15 seconds, whether they're validated by it or the opposite (random as they go), though the constant presence of it is certainly an odd but eccentric choice to have. It does get a tad overwhelming and even annoying at times since they're extremely heavily featured nonstop throughout, almost as it we're experiencing things through Cruella's joyfully crazy audial perspective. But, it very much adds up unto the ultimate and distinctive style for the darkly pop world of Cruella at the end; a clunky, messy, chaotic, and stylized crime caper surging with a delightfully rude punk energy.

Although a couple of issues I have with Gillespie's handling here would touch more with the painfully overlong nature of the film at two hours and fourteen minutes , not so helped by the repetitiveness of the script which runs out of ideas pretty quick and ends with a whimper through its disappointing climax. And the editing too is very choppy and often abrupt in general as well, being unable to let many of the crucial moments to breath properly, such as Cruella's first appearance during a gala party undercut by Jasper and Horace's heist activities at the same area. I can note Gillespie's similar style to I, Tonya but the entire thing feels like a mouthful of cocaine in this than in the director's previous movie.

Furthermore, on the performances, let's just say the audience is very fortunate to have two of the best actresses of today squaring off against each other to see who could command the screen better. The theater is transformed into the House of Emma, as Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, playing the part of Cruella and the Baroness, respectively, delve completely into their villainous characters with such venomous aplomb and wolfish charisma. For Stone, it's clear that the future notorious criminal is depicted as a more complicated figure than the one-dimensional creature she's before, constantly tiptoeing between simply being rebellious and bearing a foreboding, Machiavellian sense of terror during certain moments, especially noting her relation and history with the Dalmatians (which, again, is handled in the most mature way they can without totally ignoring it). Miss Stone depicts both aspects of Estella and Cruella with unsurprising effectiveness, something that you can always count on from the young yet already seasoned thespian to commit towards. The thing about Miss Stone is that no matter which project you see her name is attached to then you can expect quality performance from her even if the movie itself doesn't measure up to expectations. While as Cruella, she elegantly dances in her part villainy and part antihero persona with evident joy and raw passion, not only earning the title of Cruella but also managing to fully reinvent what she stands for, though not without a controversy or two. Even then, I can't help but think how she looks an awful lot like Eva Green in that black and white hair and pale skin makeup, almost as if they tried to get to Mrs Green first before deciding on Stone. That's surely not the case but hey. She still looks perfect as the young Cruella and holy Mary does she appear more attractive with every second passes in that black and white hairstyle. For Mrs Thompson as the Baroness, well, she's simply the best scene chewer every time, putting on a clinic on how to portray such an evil and arrogant mastermind with a dash of authoritarian charm but still, like, freaking reprehensible as a person. As said earlier in this review, she's pretty much a supervillain version of Miranda Priestly with a penchant for infanticide - something worse or equal to killing puppies, I guess. Where Miss Stone dances in anarchy, Mrs Thompson merely sits and revels in her psychopathic brand of Order through fashion control, methodically draped in lavish dresses while spewing words only she could make it work as the mentor to the de Vil of haute couture. Together, the Emma-on-Emma violence is really something to behold and through which the movie owes much of its entertainment from, coupled with sneers, backstabbings, hidden malice, and agendas dominating the artificial work environment. The rest of the cast are decent on their own but let's be real, the two Emmas are on another level of acting goddesses for any of them to steal the spotlight.

Overall, Cruella is both daring and refreshing change of pace from Disney's usual live-action standards, boasting green and undisciplined visual and production style, a darker tone as per its titular protagonist's nature, while being unable to prove its point of "why Cruella need a solo movie of her own" at the same time. Watch it for the double Emmas tearing the gala parties down, the incredible costume design, the pleasing visual aesthetic, and the 24/7 soundtrack as directed by the director of I, Tonya. Refrain from watching it if you're a Disney purist who desires to see Cruella stay evil for evil's sake. I personally like what they're doing with the character, maybe building her evil/mischievous persona step by step with each film leading to an alternate version of 101 Dalmatians. It just bothers me so much in regard to how the writers constantly went out of their way to make Cruella say she's a bad person with her own mouth, but refuse to actually back up her words on why she's a scum of the Earth (aside from being a thief and robber). Nevertheless, I'm still pretty excited to see the development of this version of Cruella if they decide to go forward with a sequel.

Don’t worry, there are lots more bad things coming.

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