Disney’s ‘Cruella’ has too much bark but not enough bite

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Emma Stone plays Cruella in Disney’s live-action “Cruella.” (Photo courtesy of Disney)
By Tim Nacey

Walt Disney Pictures’ latest live-action adventure might very well be the most ambitious movie ever made.

It takes one of the studio’s most iconic villains, one whose main goal is to kill and skin a group of dalmatian puppies, and attempts to make her likeable. Whether or not they succeed in this is debatable but I’m sure we can all agree on one thing: that’s a pretty big swing.

 “Cruella” stars Emma Stone as a young woman who was originally known as Estella. As a child, she was rejected by the people around her both for her extremely spunky and sometimes violent behavior and for her naturally half black, half white hair. She gets expelled from school and en route to her new school, Estella’s mother is killed in a tragic dalmatian accident. 

Yes, you read that right.

The rest of the film follows Estella — who later adopts the moniker of Cruella, her mother’s name for her extra spirited side — as she falls into a life of crime and eventually attempts to give it up to pursue a career in fashion design.

As you may guess, this movie has some very strange sensibilities. It attempts to explore themes of non-conformism, rage at the system and many other punk-rock themes but it’s afraid to really attack those themes head on.

Without getting too deeply into spoilers, the film presents Cruella as an angry woman but consistently takes the curse off her anger and cruelty by having the subjects of her wrath be worse than she is thus deserving of the misery she heaps on them. 

I can’t help but be a little disappointed that we didn’t get the movie about a punk rock Cruella de Vil who rages against the machine because it’s the machine, not because it directly wronged her.

That being said, outside of the somewhat toothless approach it takes to its thematic and stylistic choices, “Cruella” is a good time. 

It takes place in the 1970’s, a decade that production designers seem to love. The film is full of fun period detail and a soundtrack full of pop, punk and funk hits that, while I’ve heard most of them in movies before, I’m really glad that a new generation are going to discover through this film. Any movie that introduces kids to “Livin’ Thing” by Electric Light Orchestra is okay by me.

When the dust settles, “Cruella” is a bit of a mixed bag. It doesn’t follow through on the punk rock ideas that it proposes and it makes it very difficult to believe that this snarky and individualistic fashion icon will eventually go on to become the woman we meet in “101 Dalmatians.”

If you can put that aside, you’ll have a good time with this movie. Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Paul Walter Hauser — not to mention his character’s one-eyed chihuahua named Wink, who steals the show — and John McCrea all give fun, energetic performances in a movie that’s appropriate for kids, but offers enough edge and wickedness to appeal to parents too.

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