Evaluation: ‘Cruella’ is dazzling fun but shows too much sympathy for the de Vil

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It may seem counterintuitive, but the easiest way to enjoy “Cruella” — and it’s a lot enjoyable, even when it overstays its welcome — is to try and forget that it offers much of anything to do along with “One Hundred and One Dalmatians. ” The filmmakers, naturally , do not always make this simple. In line with the Walt Disney Company’s nostalgia-tickling, franchise-building corporate imperatives, they have been tasked with returning to that 1961 animated saying and spinning off a live-action origin story for the memorable fascist-fashionista villain, Cruella de Vil. And so they put on the tie-in references galore. Those famous spotted canines make an appearance. You’ll recognize crucial supporting characters from their brands, like Roger and Anita, Horace and Jasper, and you’ll likely also pick up on a snippet of the primary film’s signature tune: “Cruella de Vil / Cruella de Vil / When she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will certainly … ”

The muddled but interesting revelation of “Cruella” is that the thing in question isn’t actually all that evil. Like so many other storybook villains put through elaborate image makeovers, through “Wicked” to “Maleficent, ” Cruella — played right here by a wholly committed, glammed-to-the-nines Emma Stone — is not much of a monster. Certainly she’s a far cry from the shrieking fur-clad demon played by Glenn Close in 1996’s live-action “101 Dalmatians” (and its best-unmentioned sequel). She’s just impatient, perpetually misunderstood and unwilling to try out by the rules of a globe that fails to recognize her brilliance.

Emma Stone, in red hair and beret, in "Cruella."

Emma Rock as a pre-title-character Estella in “Cruella. ”

(Disney)

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What this leaves us with, practically talking, isn’t a prequel or an origin story a lot as the product of an alternative timeline. By movie’s finish, this Cruella seems since likely to skin a dog as she is to wear a T-shirt to the Met Gala. Puppycidal maniacs don’t make sympathetic protagonists — and “Cruella, ” above all, wants you to sympathize.

To that end, our protagonist is certainly introduced as a likably mischievous English tot named Estella (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) who has keen fashion sense, the telltale black-and-white bob of hair and a loving mother (Emily Beecham) who tries to suppress her naturally edgy streak. But then, before you can say “Lemony Snicket, ” a series of ghastly incidents leave Estella tragically orphaned and operating for her life on the roads of London. When we catch up with her several years later, she’s a seasoned grifter (now played by Stone), her tresses dyed a less obtrusive crimson and her table piled high with wonderful sartorial creations. A master of DIY couture, the girl sews brilliant disguises meant for herself and her partners in crime, the bumbling Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, very good) and the sensitive Jasper (Joel Fry, ditto).

These scenes set us adrift within a 1970s London that, like the actual 1970s London, is usually considerably more racially diverse compared to earlier Disney entertainments may have bothered to register. The movie director, Craig Gillespie, and his cinematographer, Nicolas Karakatsanis, send their particular camera soaring and whooshing through the streets in a movie that surges with contagious punk energy. If the two-guys-and-a-girl antics pack some of the Brand new Wave vitality of “Band of Outsiders, ” the serpentine tracking shots and nonstop needle drops often seem to be channeling “Goodfellas. ” (The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” is merely probably the most on-the-nose choice on a rebellion-themed soundtrack crammed with ’60s plus ’70s hits like “Feeling Good, ” “Should We Stay or Should I Go” and, fittingly for this leading lady, “Stone Cold Insane. ”)

Emma Thompson glares through chic sunglasses in "Cruella."

Emma Thompson as the Baroness in “Cruella. ”

(Disney)

Gillespie makes a pretty snug match for this material after their darkly comic Tonya Harding biopic, “I, Tonya” ; you could think of this superior follow-up as “I, Cruella, ” another damaged portrait of a downtrodden yet determined young woman none-too-reliably narrating the story of the girl many rises and falls. But then, you could also see it since the latest variation on a traditional fairy-tale template: The screenwriters, Dana Fox and Tony a2z McNamara (a writer upon Stone’s 2018 film, “The Favourite”), shrewdly position Estella as a kind of shabby-chic Cinderella, albeit one who dresses up for a different ball every night and dreams of revenge rather than Prince Charming.

Every Cinderella needs a wicked stepmother, and here that role falls to the imperious Baroness von Hellman, played by an impossibly elegant and luciferian Emma Thompson. (The Miranda Priestly vibes are far through coincidental; Aline Brosh McKenna, who receives a story credit score here, also wrote “The Devil Dons Prada. ” ) When Estella lucks the girl way into a job as a designer at the Baroness’ ultra-prestigious label, she initially can not believe her good fortune — but then, through a series of cleverly interlocking revelations, she comes to learn that the Baroness much more than just an unusually demanding boss. She’s a dangerous narcissist and an unambiguous creature, someone who deserves to be embarrassed, disgraced and finally toppled from her throne.

And so Estella unleashes her long-dormant alter ego, Cruella, who begins crashing the particular Baroness’ nightly galas having a succession of stunning dresses and a natural flair regarding shock-the-runway theatrics. Whether she’s strutting about in sparkly black leather, incorporating wearable flammables or — in the jaw-dropping visual highlight — trailing a mile-long chiffon train from the back of the garbage truck, Cruella soon establishes herself as the glam-punk performance artist of the fashion world. Besides relying on muscle from Horace and Jasper, the lady borrows some queer-eye inspiration from Artie, a vintage dress-shop owner played by a good if underused John McCrea. (The genius behind Cruella’s artistry is the endlessly innovative costume designer Jenny Beavan, in her most extravagant showcase since “Mad Max: Fury Road. ” )

Emma Stone with black-and-white hair in "Cruella"

Emma Stone in “Cruella. ”

(Disney)

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The battle of the Emmas is as hard to resist on-screen as it must have already been on paper, even if it’s not specifically a fair fight. In the context of the story, Cruella’s headline-grabbing stunts make her a persistent thorn in the Baroness’ side; in terms of pure on-screen magnetism, it’s a different tale. Few can do withering arrogance with more offhand conviction compared to Thompson, the kind of actor who are able to raise a glass in order to herself (“Here’s to me ”) as if it were one of the most logical thing in the world. She’s a total hoot. She also winds up illuminating a deeper conceptual flaw in “Cruella” and perhaps the larger cottage business of recasting memorable baddies as tortured antiheroes. Inside a movie ostensibly about the roots of a great villain, it’s Thompson’s Baroness who comes off as the actual excellent villain.

Rock of course has trickier, more complicated notes to play. Curiously sufficient, her most satisfying times belong to Estella, quietly biding her time and plotting her next move, rather than to Cruella, an indistinct presence who often appears in danger of being upstaged — sometimes upholstered — simply by her own couture. But if Rock has trouble navigating her inner Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic, that’s largely due to the herky-jerky imprecisions in the script, which appears uncertain whether to make the zustande kommend Cruella merely misguided, borderline unhinged or genuinely unscrupulous — and finally settles on a coy, unsatisfying mix of all three.

It is instructive that in “The Favourite, ” one of a number of recent films to function as many ruffled gowns and sky-high wigs as this a single, Stone nailed every tönung as another lowly young girl turned ambitious schemer. That movie reveled in its meaningful ambiguities; “Cruella, ” endeavoring to do something similar, is ultimately stymied by them. While its surface pleasures are dazzling — if a bit protracted, at well northern of two hours — it finally suggests that memorable screen villainy and complicated inner humanity may be pushed into a kind of stalemate, at least when there’s a corporate-branded intellectual property involved. “Cruella” isn’t a bad movie, even when its heroine is nowhere fast near bad enough.

‘Cruella’

Rated: PG-13, for some violence and thematic elements

Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes

Playing: Opens May 28 in theaters and loading as PVOD on Disney+

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