It was easy to root against Cruella de Vil in the 1961 One Hundred and One Dalmatians: She was mean and vain and, more importantly, totally unrepentant about slaughtering puppies. The new movie Cruella, directed by I, Tonya filmmaker Craig Gillespie and out this Friday in theaters and on Disney+, purports to explain how she became the “inhuman beast” we know from her theme song, and the results are mixed. On the one hand, it’s fabulous-looking fun, and thankfully not the Joker-but-a-woman story the trailers seemed to suggest. On the other, the story (written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, with Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis receiving story credit) is clownishly slipshod, and can’t let go of the idea that this dog-murderer must be likable. In other words, despite being a villain origin story, Cruella is afraid of making its central character a villain.
Emma Stone stars as Estella, whose mother (Emily Beecham) uses the nickname “Cruella” to chide her whenever she’s being particularly naughty. When an incident causes her mother’s untimely death, Estella blames herself, and does her best to put her Cruella side away while teaming up with fellow Oliver Twist–esque orphans Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) to make a living pulling various small cons. When she manages to land a job in a fashion house run by the famous Baroness (Emma Thompson), she resolves to stick to the straight and narrow. But as unsavory truths about her past come to light, Estella struggles to keep her more rebellious instincts in check. Thankfully, it’s London in the 1970s, and rebellion is about to come into vogue. The pump is primed for Cruella (with the help of a Malcolm McLaren–esque boutique owner) to become the Dalmatian-verse’s Vivienne Westwood.
As is fitting for a story whose ostensible hero and villain are both obsessed with fashion, the film is certainly stylish. The work of Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road) is to die for, especially when it comes to the outfits Cruella and the Baroness wear, and it’d be easy to argue that Gillespie’s primary concern as a director is the movie’s look and sound, as the constant needle-drops give Cruella the feel of a feature-length music video. These surface pleasures go a long way toward concealing the film’s blemishes, including its contortions to make Dalmatians evil (or at least very mean) so that Cruella’s later inclination to turn them into coats is somehow understandable.
The movie’s biggest issues lie in that Estella-Cruella dichotomy. At least at the beginning of the film, Estella seems to embody the well-behaved women who, as the saying goes, seldom make history. It’s only when she acts out, i.e., lets Cruella loose, that she gains the attention of the Baroness and lands her dream job as a designer. The few repercussions this transformation does have—alienating her henchmen, who rightly feel like they’re being taken for granted—are brushed off in just a few scenes rather than further interrogating the idea that the kind of girlboss attitude she’s taken on might be more than a little toxic.
In its reluctance to embrace the fact that Cruella de Vil is, at the end of the day, a character whose claim to fame is really, really wanting to butcher innocent pets, the film feels like yet another indication of the limits of the contemporary movie industry’s habit of trying to milk old, familiar IP for the sake of built-in audience. Cruella doesn’t ultimately seem like it’s benefiting from being tied to the story of the Dalmatians at all, beyond being able to use Cruella’s iconic black-and-white hairstyle, and indeed, with its central conflict between a young ingénue and her monstrous fashion-maven boss, the movie’s story ultimately owes more to The Devil Wears Prada. Instead, the nods the film is forced to cast to its older source material—explaining why she’s named Cruella de Vil (did any of us really wonder?) and, again, why she would grow up to want to skin Dalmatians—come across as forced at best.
Stone does her best to make the most of the material, especially in the frequently awkward voice-over. As the Oscar winner has proved time and time again, she’s not afraid of going big, and the part of Cruella practically demands playing to the rafters. But Thompson is the film’s true MVP, taking the Miranda Priestly role and turning it up to 11, making her cartoonish without ever winking at the audience. Fry and Walter Hauser are slightly more grounded as secondary characters, but are similarly memorable, with Fry making a case for being cast as a rom-com leading man and Gillespie’s fellow I, Tonya alum Walter Hauser once again proving that he can pickpocket a scene from anyone who crosses his path.
All in all, Cruella is much better than it needs to be, and is hampered primarily by the fact that it’s a Disney movie, both in the sense that it has to heel to its animated and live-action predecessors, and in that making its main character a genuine antihero isn’t an option. As the main character of a Disney film, Cruella has to remain sympathetic, and as a Disney production, Cruella has to make some ham-handed attempts at moralizing. Those constraints might hold the movie back, but like the punks who inspired its costumes, it at least knows how to make bondage gear look good.
For more on Cruella, listen to Karen Han and Slate movie critic Dana Stevens discuss the movie in spoiler-filled detail.