Cruella review: Disney's live-action origin story is often fun – but it's weighed down by an overlong runtime
Cruella has plenty going for it, but at times it threatens to turn from a fun romp into a bit of a slog, says Patrick Cremona.
It’s probably fair to say that Disney’s recent spate of remakes have been something of a mixed bag so far, with few of the films managing to live up to their source material, let alone offering an improvement. Well, that same expression could also be used to describe Cruella, the latest entry in the House of Mouse’s live-action canon – a prequel to 101 Dalmatians rather than a remake. The film draws on a number of influences to act as both an origin story for the eponymous Dalmatian-stealing villain and a fun heist movie in its own right, but despite some great moments along the way it struggles to balance those two elements successfully.
The film begins by introducing us to Estella, a young fashionista who is reduced to a life of petty crime after her mother dies in tragic and somewhat suspicious circumstances. After a decade of slumming it, Estella eventually manages to work her way into the good books of Baroness von Hellman, a prestigious and powerful fashion designer whose interest could spell very good news for her career aspirations. It doesn't take long, though, before she learns that the Baroness is hiding a dark secret – one that links back to the fateful night of her mother’s death, and which sets her on a path towards becoming the Cruella De Vil we all know.
Let’s start with the positives, as there are certainly things to admire in the film. The jukebox Cruella soundtrack, which includes hits from a number of ‘60s and ‘70s bands, is broadly excellent, while the lavish set design, Cruella's fashion looks and costume work brilliantly brings to life an impressive, if slightly cartoonish, version of 1970s London in all its flamboyant punky glory.
The Cruella cast, on the whole, is great, and there are several endearingly larger-than-life performances to enjoy. Emma Stone has a lot of fun with the title role – even if her English accent is subject to a few wobbles – while Emma Thompson is as terrific as ever as the real villain of the piece, the haughty Baroness von Hellman. Meanwhile, Paul Walter Houser and Joel Fry also turn in entertaining performances as Cruella’s bumbling sidekicks Horace and Jasper, with Houser especially good value as the film’s main source of comic relief. If there’s a weak link then it’s John McCrea, who delivers a somewhat wooden performance as vintage fashion shop owner Artie, not helped by the fact his character often feels rather superfluous.
For the most part, Cruella is directed with panache by Craig Gillespie (I Tonya): an expertly executed tracking shot through Liberty’s Department Store is a highlight, while the dramatic introduction for Baroness von Hellman is also nicely done. The film is at its best when it leans into the heist element of the plot, and it’s clear that Gillespie and the cast had a lot of fun orchestrating some of the more elaborate schemes for Cruella and her gang of petty thieves.
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Unfortunately, despite all those points in its favour, Cruella is rather weighed down by an overly baggy runtime and a few pacing issues, which means it sometimes threatens to turn from a fun romp into a bit of a slog. There are times when its need to act as an origin story almost overshadows the more enjoyable aspects of the plot, with a few too many cliches thrown into the mix – the customary moment when our main character suddenly stumbles upon her new name being one such example. The use of one particular song in the soundtrack, meanwhile, practically begs the audience to call to mind Joker, which Gillsepie has said was an influence, (alongside Ocean’s 11 and The Devil Wears Prada), and while this film is nowhere near as dark or gritty, you nevertheless get the feeling it’s geared as much towards Disney’s not insignificant adult fanbase as it is to a younger crowd.
There are a few other issues as well. It seems rather odd, for example, to write an origin story that aims to illustrate that an abhorrently evil character with no redeeming features wasn’t actually all that bad to begin with, only to include another abhorrently evil character with no redeeming features. Thompson’s Baroness, who is is so reprehensibly wicked that at one point she genuinely implies she’s not above infanticide, is clearly intended to represent the villain Cruella would go on to become, but if she doesn't have her own reason for being so cruel then aren't we just essentially back to square one? Presumably, we can expect an origin story for the Baroness in a few years' time...
The story also hinges on a slightly unbelievable contrivance whereby the Baroness is somehow unable to recognise that Estella and Cruella are one and the same person, but given that 101 Dalmatians gets away with a major plot point that sees a huge pack of dogs successfully disguise themselves by simply rolling about in the mud, we can probably call that particular plot hole an homage to the original.
To dwell on any of these quibbles too much would probably be to overthink it; by and large the film delivers enough fun moments to be worth a watch. It’s overlong, and perhaps tries to be too many different things at once, but Cruella can still be counted as one of the better live-action Disney films to date.
Cruella is released in cinemas and on Disney Plus premier Access on 28th May 2021. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year.
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