There’s lots more bad things coming. I promise.
First thing’s first when making a prequel to Dodie Smith‘s One Hundred and One Dalmatians that focuses villain Cruella de Vil as its antihero: ensure that audiences know she doesn’t hate dogs. Better yet, screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara go one further by making Estella (Emma Stone‘s proto-Cruella’s schizophrenic “good” persona) a lover of dogs. She saves one from the streets (Buddy) and adopts it as her best friend. She subsequently enlists another dog’s services (Wink) upon teaming up with the two young hooligans that inevitably become her lackeys (Joel Fry‘s Jasper and Paul Walter Hauser‘s Horace). The only canine hate harbored is towards the very specific trio of dalmatians who pounced on her mother and pushed her over a railing to plummet to her tragic death.
Director Craig Gillespie‘s Cruella is thus born from the pain and anguish of a genius orphan girl turned two-bit criminal thanks to a stroke of fate that may just turn out to be a lot more sinisterly malevolent once her foray into the fashion world brings her face-to-face with the infamous Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella uses her genius for design and couture to hers and the boys’ advantage by concocting impeccable disguises for them to wear during pickpocketing excursions at the beginning and more elaborate heists as their confidence grows. If not for Jasper seeing what her mother saw before her untimely demise, Estella may have simply kept stitchwork as a useful hobby. Knowing her talent was too good for that, he unselfishly gifted her a way out.
The first half of the film is therefore Estella’s coming out party as a designer The Baroness not only tolerates (Thompson is a delight as this powerful egomaniac devoid of shame when putting a cloth napkin into her takeout box and throwing the whole thing out her car window while still in motion), but one she leans on to create the new season’s best looks. Our star has gone legit to make the memory of her dear mother proud with Jasper fully in her corner and Horace almost coming around to the idea that Estella having a career isn’t merely as an angle towards some future robbery. And then past trauma rears its head to open the door to the alter ego she left behind many years ago.
Estella by day. Cruella by night. One is the unassuming employee and the other a brazen nemesis working to steal the spotlight from The Baroness for herself. One is the smart and generous friend Jasper and Horace would do anything for and the other is the cold manipulator pulling their strings until they can’t take it anymore. The darkness we know and love from the original Disney cartoon and Glenn Close‘s iconic portrayal in its live action remake is starting to show through and we’re unsure whether this character has been given the antihero treatment after all. I would have respected the decision to simply make this an origin tale of pure evil, but that stuff is saved for R-rated fare like Joker. Cruella remains a kid’s film.
We get waffling instead with Jasper trying hard to remind her that Estella is still inside despite Cruella taking control. We get lengthy sequences of exposition that feel like they’re going nowhere because in many respects they are—that’s the casualty of prequels working towards an already canonical end (the studio admits Stone and Close’s de Vils are the same). Rather than anarchy, the message becomes justified revenge. And by rendering that justification strong enough to wish Estella goes mad to attain it (Thompson’s Baroness has no gray area whatsoever by comparison), providing her the room to ultimately stop short and not give into her baser desires earns our empathy by default. We’re riding a roller coaster where the conductor’s foot is every so often grazing the brake.
Is that enough to call Cruella a resounding success? No. It’s playing things too safe as far as “arch antagonist reimagined as a conflicted protagonist being turned into that arch antagonist by a worse antagonist” to really grip us dramatically. If you ask whether it’s enough to be entertaining, however, the answer changes to the affirmative. With memorable costume design, period specific production design, a fantastic soundtrack of 60s and 70s hits, and over-the-top performances from front to back (even Mark Strong‘s straight man valet is over-the-top in his stoicism), it’s hard not to have a good time despite the script’s bloat, shortcomings, and cutesy machinations where character names like Roger (Kayvan Novak) and Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) are concerned. It flaunts its refusal to know what subtlety means.
If the plot is going to be generic, we need the rest to go off the rails. Stone may actually be the least unhinged actor of the whole project as a result because our investment in her character’s progression means she must, to a certain extent, stay grounded. That lets Thompson chew the scenery. It lets Fry and Hauser deliver cartoonish performances that perfectly match their buffoon origins while also supplying them resonant pathos where it comes to being Estella’s brothers more than Cruella’s stooges. And it lets supporting players like John McCrea and Jamie Demetriou go for broke. Add Gillespie’s aesthetic flourishes with montages superimposed by newspaper headlines and it’s easy to sit back and enjoy the ride whether or not you’ll ever purposefully take it again.
 Emma Stone as Cruella in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.
 Emma Thompson as the Baroness and Andrew Leung as Jeffrey in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. Photo by Laurie Sparham. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
 (L-R): Joel Fry as Jasper, Paul Walter Hauser as Horace and Emma Stone as Cruella in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.