“Cruella” (2021) Review

A Review Written by Victor DeBonis

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

At the time that this review is being written, I’ve noticed a few nice, positive surprises or changes, as of late, with what surrounds me. Positive surprises, in particular, can leave one with feeling more energy and joy than one might have predicted. In this particular case, I experienced a surprise that I honestly wasn’t certain if I would feel, and that came in the form of a live-action Disney movie based on a classic animated film that I legitimately enjoyed and even had a blast in through the majority of the time. Anyone who’s familiar with me knows that, looking past the studio decisions made that I don’t get behind, I’m a huge Disney fan to my core when it comes to its good movies and even a few of the shows that I love. However, time after time, the live-action Disney remakes or prequels have left me feeling underwhelmed, if not, completely annoyed (with, maybe, the exception of the “Pete’s Dragon” remake that I thought was just okay).

“Cruella” while not perfect, is a prequel that feels alive and has an energy and creativity to it that feels far from any of the remakes that I’ve seen before. It takes a legitimate number of choices with its narrative that flow well. It carries a dark tone and snarky edge that feels different from the more corporate and safe feel that previous live-action remakes tended to have. The sheer feel of this movie left me with an energy and eagerness to follow its characters on each step along the path however twisted and devious it might have turned out. And, through much of it, it’s a proudly haunting movie for one that wears its recognition to all outcasts and artists on its sleeves. The director of this movie is Craig Gillepsie who crafted the 2017 dark comedy, “I, Tonya” (a movie that I also thoroughly enjoyed), and a similar vibe of embracing its own twisted vibe without apologies (for a Disney film, in this case) remains prominent here and further helps it.

The movie holds a different feel that is incredibly welcome right down to how it’s directed and edited. Throughout much of the film, the camera swiftly zooms in and pushes closer to capture shocking or heavy moments. Such an energy is built up further with edits that quickly but effectively illustrate the thrill of an elaborate scene of trickery, and that plays perfectly with a movie that is greatly built around a villainess on the rise and how she reaches her wicked throne partly through deception.

As one might imagine, Emma Stone does wonders for the titular role and not always in the ways that one would immediately expect. Yes, she is delightfully over the top and relishes in how devious she is and lovely she appears with how she pauses when she speaks and embraces the elaborate designs of every dress that she wears. Yet, she also holds real moments of uncertainty and an obviously wounded nature that provides an unexpected bit of complexity to her character and makes the audience sympathize with what she experiences, even if they’re not ultimately on her side.

Emma Thompson plays Cruella’s main opponent/mentor-in-wickedness, Baroness von Hellman. She’s delightfully vicious to a height that makes it easy to see where the titular character learned a bit of her nasty ways from, and it’s a bit hilarious and astonishing to see Thompson embrace this role with open arms. Her stare is unmistakably cold, glancing upon every person that crosses her path as though it’s a pathetic bug that she’s struggling to not squash with her fancy shoes.

Through specific actions and a few key lines, she is instantly credible as someone who plays a part in paving the path for De Ville’s nastiness for the present and the future. And, what makes these two actresses more entertaining and engaging than they are already comes from their exchanges with each other. They are often humorous or involve a wit and deception that shows just how cunning both of them are in their own ways. It’s essentially a competition that comes across as a battle between two villainous queens trying to outdo the other through their own talents and inner madness, and it’s pretty entertaining and engaging to witness.

The other actors do a solid job of filling in their roles, especially Paul Walter Hauser. Hauser is a character actor who I’ve often enjoyed seeing in past films, such as “Richard Jewell” and the aforementioned “I, Tonya” and, in this film, he continues to not disappoint by bringing a delightfully dumb and unaware demeanor as Horace. Working together with Jasper and Cruella, the three make for an entertaining family of goons whose camaraderie and bond is charming and humorous to see.

Admittedly, I’m not particularly interested in fashion, but, having said that, I have to give applause to the costume design for this movie. Cruella de Vil is a villain known prominently for her passion and knack for fashion, and this movie definitely doesn’t disappoint. This film reveals some rather impressive designs for clothes that the dubious queens wear that are elaborate, detailed, and show some genuine creativity with how they’re presented.

Also, since the film takes place through much of the 70’s, it also possesses a rather impressive soundtrack that not only contains several great rock songs from the era but also some neat funk songs from that time, too. As someone who’s a huge rock fanatic, I found it to be a treat to listen to tunes from the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and others, and they did what I wish that all movies would do with their needle drops in terms of placing songs that match with the mood of the story or inner thoughts of the characters instead of being solely placed to make someone say, “Ooo, I remember this song!” and not do anything else with it. A few tunes seem randomly placed with the scenes that they accompany, but, for the most part, they do pretty well.

The British rock tunes also match well with the movie in the sense that, similar to how British punk rock was providing a different vibe from mainstream music for that time, Cruella is continuing in her path as a bit of an outcast and truly thinking outside of the box with her radical design ideas. In fact, one of the elements that I admired the most about this movie is that, even if it probably wasn’t the direct intent of the movie, I viewed this film as a story about an artist paving the way for her own path through her struggles with herself and through society and using her conflicts and creativity to create pieces (which, for her, are elaborate clothing) that are remarkable and well-known. True, it is an artist who I and others (in their right mind) don’t side with and agree with her own wickedness, but it is still an artist’s journey nevertheless. And, as someone who loves art and drawing and trying to make what art I can, on occasion, with words or a pad, I love the idea that this film was, in my mind, trying to tell this type of story.

There’s also an interesting theme about how a person’s connection with her family (which, in this case, comes from Cruella’s connection with her mother) can shape that person from early life and later on. It’s an interesting way of showing how the events of what goes on with a person’s family can bring them hope and a sense of heart or soul but, through painful or unfortunate events, can also twist them in ways that are unimaginable and further hurt a person who is already rather wounded. This is a conflict that I was surprised to see a film from Disney (the studio that works so hard on being the family-friendly juggernaut) take on, and it was one shining example of the chances that this movie took and how refreshing it was to witness. Even the film’s idea of dogs and the importance that they can play in shaping a person’s life, based on the significant encounters that people can have with them (for better or worse), is well-echoed, despite the theme being presented in a brief manner.

After so many remakes and prequels that either focused too much on trying to retell the story with little to no variations and soul of its own, it was so nice to see a film, such as this, take a different approach and go a little darker in certain areas to great effect. It was nice to see a Disney prequel that was willing to tap into ideas and a background that matched well with its story and didn’t feel as though something was being retold solely to make money. This film felt as though it was being done by artists who wanted to do something further with this material and did the best that they could with it in innovative ways.

So, from the sound of it, it might appear as though this film is great, and it does get so close to that. However, there are parts of the story, particularly in the last half-hour or so, that don’t work, and they come from an element of narratives that can either help or hinder a movie, based on how they’re done: the twist. As the film progresses, there are some twists that occur, and one of them feels as though it’s the type that’s just been done before and in not a good way. It’s uncertain to me why this particular twist needed to happen save for trying to provide more to compel a character to do what she does. There’s another twist that doesn’t ruin anything that happened from before, but it does make me wonder how the narrative might have been if it was left in a certain way, earlier.

I recognize that some of this is rather vague, but I don’t want to spoil what happens, later on, for those who haven’t seen this film, so they can determine for themselves whether these narrative shifts work or not. It’s a strange situation because it reminds me of when so many movies and shows relied upon twists by themselves to further engage their audiences and would feature them all the time in their stories, even if the twist wasn’t that original or made much sense. The twists in this movie, while not ruining anything as a whole for me, held this film back from being something great. What also hinders this movie a bit is that, following these twists, the plot does go in a few predictable directions that one would expect, and this is the only part that feels closer to a ho-hum Disney remake. It’s also worth noting that, as the narrative progresses, there is a bit too mentioning of who someone is before and who they are now in an obvious way, and that felt a bit repetitive.

Aside from that, I’m impressed that it only took until the last act to feel a bit underwhelmed from the events of a live-action Disney film based on an animated classic. I personally always thought that the original “100 Dalmations” was usually rather solid. It wasn’t anything amazing, but I liked the artistry with the animation and how lovable and crazy the plot could be. In fact, it’s funny that I’m writing this review because the 1996 remake with Glenn Close is maybe the most that I’ve come to enjoying a Disney remake, in general. Maybe, it’s just the fact that, for years, we’ve been getting underwhelming product after underwhelming product made what feels as though it’s solely trying to make money and make up for hitting a creative wall.

Whatever the reason may be that I feel as I do about this film, I had a darkly enjoyable time with “Cruella.” Its actors embrace the chaos and wonder that surrounds them. Its ideas and presentation are rather well-executed. And, above all, it maintains an edge that not only feels earned but maintains a wild charm through the connections of its characters and the wonderfully devious battle between two villainous queens fighting for their throne and maintaining their own jaded morals in an environment that seems built against rebellious outcasts. The story may lose a bit of its unique edge for a brief while as it reaches near the climax, but its confident, haunting nature and its status as a genuine ode to artists and overlooked outcasts is never lost.

As Disney has admittedly taught us, miracles can, in specific occasions, occur when one least expects them to. This imperfect yet entertaining and engaging Disney prequel is certainly an example and an admirably dark, fun ride.

Grade: B+

I’m passionate about movies, animation, and writing, in general, and I only want to learn more.