Let’s start with the obvious: nobody asked for Cruella. As has been discussed in relation to movies like Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s not necessary to explain every corner of an established storytelling universe. It’s OK to have mysteries—they can even be part of what makes something good in the first place. 101 Dalmatians, while loved by people who grew up watching it, is also not a property that inspires Star Wars-level devotion. I remember the animated movie and its 1996 live-action version fondly. There was a Saturday morning cartoon spin-off, and a tie-in with the Disney Channel’s Descendants movies. That’s about it.
Regardless, Cruella still waltzes fashionably into theaters this weekend. There are problems, notably a bulky running time and several of those aforementioned unnecessary Solo-esque detail drops. However, it’s lovely to look at, and director Craig Gillespie and his I, Tonya cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis make sure every lush detail stands out. Emma Stone, as Cruella, and Emma Thompson, as her main rival, deliver delicious performances, with juicy lines co-written by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara. If you’re going to make this movie (and the Disney content mill would have eventually anyway), it’s hard to imagine a better lineup.
Cruella starts life as Estella, a mischievous kid born with two-toned hair. After she’s expelled from school, Estella’s mother (Emily Beecham) takes her to London to start over, but mysteriously dies en route. Estella befriends two young pickpockets in London, Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry), and they become a team. As an adult, Stone’s Estella works for The Baroness (Thompson), a Miranda Priestly-esque fashion designer. After learning the Baroness played a hand in her mother’s death, Estella’s simmering rage and penchant for drama come roaring out in the form of Cruella, her Vivienne Westwood-inspired prankster alter-ego. Cruella plans revenge, enlisting Horace, Jasper and school friend Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) to help. Dalmatians are involved. Animal cruelty, thankfully, is not.
It’s fun to spend time in Cruella’s ‘70s London setting, partially because of the historical visual hallmarks and also because Gillespie and his team do a good job of world-building. That attention to detail is also what makes the clothes look universally fantastic, whether it’s drab uniforms or high fashion. Jenny Beavan’s costume designs can be gloriously over-the-top, but they feel in tune with the changing trends of the time, best highlighted by the contrast between the Baroness’ more traditional gowns and Cruella’s deconstructed glam-punk approach.
At 134 minutes, however, we’re spending a little too much time in that world, engrossing as it may be. Cruella suffers from pacing issues – not because it’s trying to do too much, but bizarrely because it seems content to take its time getting to the point. There’s a lot of setup here that could’ve used a strong editorial hand. Some of this involves obnoxious 101 Dalmatians detail inclusions and bow-tying so we’re all fully aware (if we weren’t already) of how this story leads to the events of the one we’re familiar with. It’s unnecessary, and some of these elements feel tacked on out of obligation.
It’s unclear who Cruella is for—adults who watched the original 101 Dalmatians surely weren’t clamoring for the villain’s backstory, and it’s too long, too slow, and likely too dark for kids to enjoy. But given all that it is, it’s still better than it has a right to be. It’s worth checking out, though it’s unlikely to be anyone’s repeat favorite.
“Cruella” is in theaters and on Disney+ (Premier Access) Friday.