Cruella movie review: Emma Stone pulls a Harley Quinn in dull Disney prequel

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An overblown and unnecessary waste of $200 million, Disney’s Cruella encapsulates everything that is wrong with modern studio moviemaking and the IP-driven approach that the Mouse House is responsible for cultivating.

Some time around the late 2000s, Disney decided that it no longer wanted to make movies with modest budgets, and that instead, it would devote all its resources to producing only tentpoles. And so it set about purchasing everything from Lucasfilm to Marvel, and then, eventually, all of Fox. And while this plan has proven to be very successful, it is solely responsible for the franchise-heavy filmmaking that most studios are now focussing on.

Watch the Cruella trailer here:

Cruella, a prequel to the live-action 101 Dalmatians (itself a remake), is a film that absolutely nobody was asking for. And yet, it exists. The recent announcement that a sequel had been greenlit is only partially a clever PR move by the company, which is in the middle of a public legal tussle with Scarlett Johansson. Mostly, it’s an indication of just how tragically the industry has driven itself into a creative corner. A sequel to Cruella is apparently a more attractive proposition to the studio than something that costs half as much but would be doubly memorable.

Because in the two-odd months since I watched this movie, it has all but evaporated from my mind. The only thing that has resisted the pull of irrelevance is the performance of Paul Walter Hauser. He is, perhaps, this generation’s Steve Buscemi or John Goodman, equally comfortable at playing supporting roles as he is at playing leads.

He is the standout performer in Cruella, a film that stars two Emmas with three Oscars between them. As the comic relief character Horace, Hauser goes hard, settling on a semi-deadpan that is not only regularly funny, but also made me wonder why director Craig Gillespie didn’t ask the rest of the cast to match his energy. Instead, Gillespie blows what seems like the majority of the film’s budget on endless needle-drops and CGI dogs.

The inherent goofiness of the plot demands a certain level of camp, but neither Cruella the film nor the character is willing to commit. Instead, Gillespie aims for a faux-edginess that wears off almost immediately. To compensate, he has characters say things like, “You have a bit of an extreme side,” to Cruella’s face, as if the film is afraid to actually show just how extreme her cruelty can be. As it turns out, she’s just an oddball dealing with a traumatic past — a routine-enough backstory, but for Disney, positively risque.

Emma Stone in a still from Cruella.

Emma Stone delivers a strangely distant performance as Estella/Cruella, who runs away to London after her mother is gruesomely killed by a bunch of dogs in the opening sequence. She’s immediately taken in by a couple of kids who live by themselves in a loft that looks it like would probably cost millions of pounds. The two boys invite Estella to join their merry band, and together, they hustle their way up the social ladder.

Some years later, the trio, now having developed a strong platonic bond — this is a Disney movie, so romance isn’t allowed to complicate their dynamic — Estella finds work at the city’s most prestigious fashion label, where her talent is immediately spotted by the owner, Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson).

What unfolds is a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and The Favourite, and to understand the level of complacency that went into creating this movie, all you to know is that Disney actually enlisted Aline Brosh McKenna and Tony McNamara to contribute to Cruella’s script. Do these names ring a bell? Well, McKenna wrote The Devil Wears Prada, and McNamara co-wrote The Favourite. It’s almost a miracle that Todd Phillips’ name doesn’t pop up in the credits, because along with those two films, the next biggest reference point seems to be Joker.

Like a shoddily-stitched dress, the film comes apart at the seams roughly halfway through, when Estella decides that she no longer wishes to be a pushover, and becomes a villain instead. What? How? It’s bizarre. One minute she’s a sorry little person who wants to be noticed, and in the next, she’s announcing her transformation into a flamboyant figure named Cruella by putting together a punk rock show in the middle of the street.

It feels a little unearned, and frankly, it would’ve worked better had Estella’s about-face been reserved for the film’s final act, you know, like Joker. But by suddenly turning her into a largely unsympathetic character, not only does the film undo the groundwork that it had laid in the past hour, but it also leaves you wondering what to feel for the remaining 60 minutes (it’s a long movie, you guys). Are we supposed to magically forget what we just watched, or are we expected to actually root for this rude person who seems to have invaded the movie? Because there’s very little similarity between Estella and Cruella, even superficially.

Also read: Aladdin movie review: Will Smith makes the magic happen in Guy Ritchie’s Disney film

For all its pretend-punk rock spirit, Cruella is probably one of the most conformist-minded studio pictures this side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Remember, if costumes alone made a good movie, then Sanjay Leela Bhansali would’ve been the world’s best director. Cruella isn’t as unbearable as Bhansali’s films, but it simply isn’t compelling.

Cruella

Director – Craig Gillespie

Cast – Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar





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