Cruella

★★★★

Cruella de Vil has to be considered one of the most hated animated villains in the Disney film world.

Sure, Scar betrays and kills his brother. Maleficent and the Evil Queen put young girls in comas in their quests for power. Gaston is just arrogant and gross (the original creepy frat bro).

But Cruella tries to kill puppies. That’s an unforgivable sin for many people.

Just mention Michael Vick on a Facebook post and see how many angry comments you get.

“Poison them. Drown them. Bash them in the head. You got any chloroform?” Cruella yells in the 1961 film. “I don’t care how you kill the little beasts, but do it, and do it now!”

People hate seeing animal cruelty in movies. Even a dog dying of natural causes leads to uncontrollable sobbing, which is why the Web site, DoesTheDogDie.com, is a real thing.

Trending in the top 10 of searches on that Web site is “Cruella,” the new origin story of the Disney villain starring Oscar-winner Emma Stone.

And not to spoil too much, but no, this newest film doesn’t display animal cruelty. We don’t even see Emma Stone’s character kick a dog, let alone show the future seeds of puppy homicide. That’s because the goal of this prequel is to portray a sympathetic look at one of Disney’s most hated antagonists.

Set in 1970s London, Estella is an orphaned drifter who makes friends with two thieves, Horace and Jasper, after her mother dies in a horrible fashion. Estella is cunning and conniving as a criminal but too meek when it comes to traditional employment.

The two-tone black-and-white mop of hair symbolizes the dual nature brewing inside of Estella’s messed up head. Ever since she was young she’s had an “extreme side,” an alter-ego that her mom nicknamed Cruella. She dyes her hair to cover up her natural hair-color abnormality, but eventually her “Mr. Hyde” bursts through.

Estella designs and sews all of the disguises that she and her bandit-buddies use on con jobs. She has a natural flair for design and longs to work in a high-end clothing store.

After a few misadventures, Estella lucks her way into a job as a clothing designer with the famed fashion icon The Baroness, played deliciously by Oscar-winner Emma Thompson. The Baroness is rude, pompous and cut-throat. Obvious comparisons will be made to Meryl Streep’s performance in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but that’s a disservice to Thompson. She creates her own character.

The Baroness abuses her employees. She toasts to herself at meals. She forcibly throws out guests at her parties that dressed too well and might upstage her. It’s a fun performance by a truly underrated actress.

“Let me give you some advice: You can’t care about anyone else. Everyone else is an obstacle. If you care what an obstacle wants or feels, you’re dead. If I’d cared about anyone or thing, I might have died. You have the talent. Whether you have the killer instinct is the big question.” — The Baroness in “Cruella.”

The relationship between Estella and The Baroness begins as one of an underling desperately seeking the approval of a cruel boss but later turns into a vicious rivalry. The back-and-forth acting tennis match between the two Emmas is a joy to watch.

Unknown to the The Baroness, Estella transforms into her alter-ego Cruella, a singular-named fashion-vandal who crashes event after event with avant-garde, focus-stealing, punk rock creations. Cruella is part Banksy, part Joey Ramone and part Lady Gaga. She’s edgy and aggressive and poses an unacceptable threat to the reserved Baroness.

I’m a straight white man who can barely dress himself (my wife often corrects me when I try to wear a brown belt with a black suit) but even I had to appreciate the imaginative costume design in “Cruella.” Audiences are treated to a fun montage of increasingly bold looks. I particularly enjoyed when she fells of a garbage truck with a dress that looked like rubbish and old newspapers. It’s not a stretch to say the “Cruella” should receive Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup.

I suspect that cosplay enthusiasts will have some fun with this film. You might even see some inspiration on display when Halloween rolls around.

“Cruella” ends on a solid note, but with a run time of more than two hours, it feels like it takes a long time to get there.

In fact, my wife had to go to bed about an hour into this one and she commented that she felt that she really didn’t get to see Estella’s transformation into Cruella. Truly it takes more than an hour for the movie to really kick into gear.

References to the 1961 classic animated film abound in this original story including Roger and Anita, Cruella’s terrible driving, how “Hell House” got its name and where her devilish last name originated.

But the main question: why does she hate dogs? That question is clumsily answered.

We find out why Cruella isn’t a fan of dalmatians in particular, but Cruella and her bumbling sidekicks actually own two very small mutts. It’s understandable. This movie wants to paint Estella/Cruella in a sympathetic light and so animal cruelty is off the table. The most we see is an off-color joke about turning the spotted dogs into a coat, which she quickly laughs off when scolded.

So how does this version of Cruella differ from the previous incarnations?

In the 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Cruella is presented as the epitome of old-money greed. She has a meek furrier husband and a malnourished Siamese cat — both removed from the movies — which are abused by her. She’s swimming in debt and is a tyrannical figure grasping on to her fading power.

The 1961 animated feature follows the novel fairly closely with a few exceptions. She’s a scrawny figure with a phony accent that reminds viewers of Tallulah Bankhead (born in Alabama but often used a fake British accent). She’s homicidal and uncaring.

Glenn Close seems to be channelling “Sunset Boulevard” in her 1996 live-action portrayal. She has more sex appeal and glamour than the book or cartoon. Close chews scenery in her over-the-top performance which unfortunately has a lot more slapstick than is needed.

Emma Stone’s version is more calculated and vengeful rather than a heartless sociopath.

“Cruella gets things done. Estella doesn’t,” she yells at Horace and Jasper as justification for her less-than-kind leadership.

She gets to flex her acting chops with a tearful, mascara-dripping monologue at the very end of the movie. She provides depth and motivation to a universally hated femme fatale.

Stone doesn’t go quite as psycho as Joaquin Phoenix in another spinoff origin story “Joker,” but remember that “Cruella” is still rated PG-13. It definitely won’t appeal to elementary school aged children but middle school and above could enjoy this mildly maniacal flick.

There’s a lot I didn’t like about “Cruella.” It’s overly long. It takes nearly an hour to get rolling. There’s unnecessary narration throughout that spouts cliche sayings and restates plot points that I already understood. The soundtrack is filled with the most overused 1970s rock songs that it almost feels like one of those generic compilation albums you used to see advertised on TV in the 1990s. And the songs seems to be thrown into scenes without much thought to how they fit into the context of what’s going on.

In the end, this is probably the best version of this movie we could expect to see given its constraints. It’s a Disney-studio movie. It’s not going to be artsy or violent. It’s not going to have a main character without any redeeming factors. It’s not going to give a writer/director complete reign to craft their vision. This was always going to be heavily influenced by notes from the studio.

But given all of that, it succeeds quite nicely. That’s mostly due to the chemistry between Emma Stone and Emma Thompson. These two Emmas certainly know how to breathe life into their characters and it’s always a joy to see them act, even in a cash grab from Disney.

Cruella is available in theaters or you can pay $30 to unlock it from Disney+. I’d say it’s worth a trip to the movie theaters, especially since COVID numbers are improving.

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