There are two scenes in Cruella that explain how the infamous would-be puppy murderer got her name. The first takes us to her childhood, when she was known as Estella. After some particularly mean behavior from Estella, her mother coins the moniker “Cruella.” In the second, Cruella is told a car is a Coupé de Ville and she remarks that she likes the “de Ville” part. These scenes are clunky. They’re unnecessary. They’re cringe-inducing. In other words, they epitomize the problems of Cruella, a poorly written movie that gives audiences a baffling take on the villainess that nobody asked for.
The film is riddled with similar moments of bonk-you-on-the-head writing that start almost immediately. In the first few scenes, a young Cruella (Emma Stone) witnesses her mother (Emily Beecham) get pushed off a cliff by dalmatians owned by the evil fashion designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Cruella then runs away to London where she starts a life of crime and falls into 1970s punk culture, before inadvertently having her fashion skills discovered by the baroness, who takes Cruella her under her wing. Cruella realizes the baroness killed her mother and begins a convoluted revenge plot that involves her upstaging the baroness with her edgy haute couture and punk style.
The costume design is sumptuous and Disney must have shelled out a pretty penny for the many, many era-appropriate fashions it features. But such set dressing does little to cover up for the fact that Cruella is all style and no substance.
Credit where credit is due: Emma Stone is superb. She’s campy and gives a great performance in a bad role. Emma Thompson does a good job of being dramatically villainous in a turn that’s a combo of Miranda Priestly and Mrs. Danvers. But it doesn’t matter how good your two leads are if they’re in a film that features things like the protagonist utilizing a parachute skirt to float down a cliff. There is virtually no character development for Cruella, who goes from the relatively normal, just-trying-her-best Estella to the condescending anti-hero Cruella without even a modicum of build up. Note, too, that I said “anti-hero” instead of villain. Because this movie goes out of its way to make Cruella sympathetic, an absolutely bizarre choice for a film that ostensibly sets up 101 Dalmatians. By the end of the movie, we’re left with a “full-fledged” Cruella who … makes sure justice is served in her mother’s murder, has several pet dogs, and aside from one offhanded joke about making a coat out of dogs, gives no indication she’d ever commit animal cruelty.