The latest in Disney’s slow creative death certainly isn’t its weakest effort, but then nor is it it’s best. Despite a fabulous central performance, the film tries too hard to be the next ‘Joker’, but never quite gets it spot on.
‘Cruella’ tells the story of Estella Miller, a woman who suffers a family tragedy and falls on hard times. Her dreams to become a fashion designer are grand, but so are her ambitions of greed and cruelty. When dark revelations come to light, she will transform into the classic villain created by Dodie Smith, Cruella de Vil.
Emma Stone shines in the central role, doing the always difficult task of making a bad person wonderfully likeable. Her flamboyant mannerisms and note-perfect British accent means the film is totally carried by her. And thank goodness it is, because other than her spectacular performance and some stunning costume design from Jenny Beavan, the film is fairly disappointing.
The first key issue is the script has very little imagination or flair. Bland dialogue pads out its 2hr+ run time and it certainly drags at many points. The film attempts to spruce up the energy with constant deployment of a jukebox soundtracks (known in the industry as needle-drops). However, the film drops the needle every other minute, jumping from Nancy Sinatra to David Bowie to Doris Day to Deep Purple. The result is a nauseating barrage of constant auditory abuse that doesn’t set the tone, but rather dampens it.
The rest of the cast are entertaining supporting characters, but are totally wasted. Emma Thompson is very one-note as ‘The Baroness’, London’s finest fashion designer, and British favourite Mark Strong is literally renegaded to playing a valet. Only Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser get to have fun with their roles, playing the hapless Jasper and Horace, Cruella’s helpers.
Another key issue with ‘Cruella’ is that, despite its 12 rating, it desperately wants to be as edgy as Joker. Both are taking classic villains and giving them an origin story to justify why they’re bad. Both set their films in an era that evokes the same spirit as their character. Both used recognisable images from the older franchise while trying to keep things original and unique. And on a lesser note, both ironically use the song “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin.
The trouble is that ‘Cruella’ never manages to create the tone of ‘Joker’. With a 12 Rating, the character is only talking of murder, but never acting upon it. In fact, the most shocking thing she does (considering it’s a Disney film) is get drunk. Crucially however, the film made her a hero which just doesn’t work for her character. It’s the same issue the Harley Quinn film suffered from. If a character is villainous, they are the villain. You can’t just make them a hero by finding some bland justification for their awful behaviour. This is what made ‘Joker’ so successful. He was a terrible human being. Put down upon yes, but never glorified, and it was impossible not to leave the film knowing he was a villain.
Overall, ‘Cruella’ is just another in a long line of disappointing Disney films. Where once there was fresh originality, now there is only a husk of their former form. Vibrant costumes and a great central performance are let down by bland writing and a total tonal confusion.