Cruella ★½

An aggressive, assaultive attempt to engender empathy for the would-be puppy killer in 1961’s animated One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the live-action Cruella must have known any audience sympathy would be hard-won. How else would you explain the bizarre decision to open the movie with a trio of demonic dalmatians attacking and killing a defenseless woman? See, Cruella seems to be saying, that yapping brood in the original deserved it! That’s just the first of many ill-conceived ideas in the screenplay, which cavorts and contorts with absurd explanations for how a spirited young girl named Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) grew up to become Cruella de Vil (Emma Stone, flashing her eyes and sporting some striking costumes, but otherwise straining to match the haggard magnetism of Betty Lou Gerson’s original vocal performance). Exhaustingly over-directed (Craig Gillespie zooms in from an establishing shot to a close-up in nearly every other scene), the movie is also a nonstop parade of grating, obvious needle drops. By the time a third-act plot twist is dropped out of nowhere in yet another attempt to spell out Cruella’s origins, I decided I would stick with one of my own invention: that Cruella de Vil is actually the boozy transatlantic relative of Big Edie and Little Edie, of Grey Gardens fame. After skinning the raccoons in the rafters of their dilapidated estate on a visit, she decided to move on to dalmatians.

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