starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Mark Strong
screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara
directed by Craig Gillespie
by Walter Chaw It's better to think of Craig Gillespie's Cruella as a riff than as a prequel--a variation on a theme rather than the puzzle-box predecessor to a beloved intellectual property. In fact, one's ability to do so informs the extent to which this film is not merely enjoyable but indeed good. Cruella is a mindfuck of a construct, a postmodern exercise in which nothing of it could cohere without knowledge of, and experience with, other cultural artifacts--but even there, it occupies two spaces simultaneously: the Disney side, where the references are all to 101 Dalmatians, against the Gillespie side, where the references are to pop-cultural movements in music, fashion, even literature. Early on, a young Cruella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), born "Estella," is urged by her saintly mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) to contain Estella's exuberant, sometimes-violent and "evil" side by dubbing her "Cruella" and, in so naming it, caging it. The suggestion, then, is that "Estella" is the polite-if-constricting requirement that Cruella be a prequel to a Disney "vault" classic, while "Cruella" is the Something Wild barely contained that, like Michelle Pfeiffer's resurrected Catwoman in Batman Returns, is a creature born of violence returned as the avatar for perversity and chaos. Imagine how great this good film would have been were it just the one with none of the other.
Grown up into Emma Stone, Estella finds herself orphaned in a Dickensian ménage à trois with sly Jasper (Joel Fry) and lumpen Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), the trio picking pockets as a team in Mod London and looking for the "angle" in what will eventually be a heist scenario involving the retrieval of Cruella's dead mother's necklace from the clutches of evil Baroness (Emma Thompson), the Anna Wintour of avant-garde House of Baroness. Poor Catherine has been murdered by dalmatians, which either provides the clumsiest of rationales for Cruella's eventual predilection for murdering dalmatians or is a baroque, Lemony Snicket twist of fate, delicious in its Edward Gorey-ian nihilism. I like the one more than the other, it goes without saying, but your mileage may vary. Estella has a gift for fashion design, and, as a lovely gift from Jasper, she lands a job as a janitor at the House of Baroness, something she hopes to parlay into the position of assistant to the Baroness herself. In one sense, this is a clunky way to set up 101 Dalmatians and Cruella's position there as, essentially, the new Baroness (let's not even get into the royal blood contrivances that seem a Disney requirement now). In another, better sense, it's a reference to The Devil Wears Prada and All About Eve in its uncompromising excoriation of how powerful women will exploit the labour of other women who work for them in self-defeating, patriarchally-defined cycles. One is stupid, the other is brilliant. One is a distraction; the other should have been the point.
The soundtrack to Cruella is extravagantly, ridiculously great: Nina Simone and The Zombies, The Doors and David Bowie. How about the Rolling Stones? Blondie? Black Sabbath? That's right; Judy Garland, too. Ohio Players, Suzy Quatro, The Clash, of course. Hello, Joe Dolan, for the first time since Michael Almereyda's The Eternal. Deep Purple, ELO, Queen...Doris Day? J. Geils Band, Rose Royce, Bee Gees, Helen Reddy, "Theme from A Summer Place," Ken Dodd... Oh my. The songs set a delirious tone and become a parallel narrative: the old standards are Estella; the evolution from Doris Day to Iggy Pop is Cruella. One is Disney on purpose, the other is the culture Disney can't quite control--though not for lack of trying. The more one can parse the history of music during this period up to and including such minutiae as how styles, entire genres, were appropriated by white musicians and then reclaimed (as in a pair of furious Ike & Tina covers), the more one appreciates how Cruella is the story of a young, mistreated woman coming into complete power and actualization through these expressions of rebellion against tradition, etiquette, and expectation. Cruella appears at one gala dumped from the back of a rubbish truck to reveal that its contents--all that garbage--are a piece of her dress's glorious, block-long train. That's as interesting a statement about the rededication of a ruling culture's castoffs as anything by Basquiat or NWA. The other way to look at the soundtrack is as an impossibly expensive indulgence, the gaudy flex of the world's most powerful media conglomerate--and hateful as a consequence.
Before her final break from the Baroness, Estella devises a brilliant way to sabotage an important fashion show. She fabricates a dress from thousands of moth chrysalides on the verge of hatching, dying them gold and assembling them like an Eiko Ishioka fever dream. A Trojan horse of fabric-destroying plague insects that billow out at the moment of truth, engulfing the Baroness in a cloud of pestilence and hate, it's as wonderful in the complexity of its signs as Thompson's performance. Stone's as well. (Really, Cruella, in terms of relational dynamics, is just a reiteration of the tetchy confrontational relationship between Stone's Abigail jousting against Rachel Weisz's Lady Sarah in The Favourite.) In making the centrepiece transformational moment that of a caterpillar becoming a destructive moth, Cruella demonstrates a remarkable level of self-knowledge and, in an odd way, offers hope that even as Disney sucks all the air out of the room, there are still creators working away at the fringes who appear able to hold their breath for a little while. Cruella leaves the scene of her crime to vogue on a pop-up runway, then delivers a soliloquy at what will eventually be her character's base of operations, one "Hell Hall." We see Cruella in this film breaking off a piece of signage to name her new home in very much the same way that Catwoman, post-murder and reanimation, shatters her neon "Hello There" sign in her apartment to spell "Hell Here." There's power in these women identifying the world and their new place at its throne. That's the part of Cruella that's exceptional.
What isn't exceptional about Cruella? For starters, the multi-racial recasting of Roger and Anita--not because there's any requirement that they be white milquetoasts, but because there is no cultural distinction in them being cast this way. When white people in power decide to make all the secondary characters some other race, it's not diversity, it's tokenism and it's insulting. (You don't think we know that.) What's left at the end of this picture is a chimera: one part wonderful creation myth in which a woman sick of eating shit sandwiches readies to express the product of her hands, defiantly and ruthlessly; one part blatant cash-in and property manipulation to bolster a streaming service and test the tentative reopening of theatrical markets global and domestic. Cruella fascinates, though, because the fact of itself is a metatextual commentary on the circumstances of its birth. It's incapable of disguising its mixed parentage, and there's something vital there in the birth pains of a fierce offspring trying to be born from something cloying and cynical. Undermined in the present by the success of its own marketing apparatus, Cruella may find history treating it kindly. It feels like one of those great '80s blockbusters we didn't realize were in active opposition to the Reagan years at the time; there's life in us, yet.