Cruella (2021)

So far, I’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding Disney’s live-action reheats of its own stale leftovers.  2019’s Lion King, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, and 2015’s Cinderella have all been massive commercial successes for America’s favorite Evil Corporation, but I personally don’t understand their appeal.  Why would I want to see the expressive, imaginative artistry of animation classics re-interpreted in lifeless, colorless CGI?  If I ever catch myself feeling pangs of nostalgia for Aladdin, Dumbo, or The Jungle Book, the original works are just one library loan away – no substitutes necessary.  Unfortunately, my resolve to avoid Disney’s de-animated retreads is much weaker when it comes to the spotlight origin stories for their classic villainesses.  In 2014, I somehow found myself watching the de-animated prequel Maleficent in a near-empty multiplex, and this year I was helpless but to repeat the ritual (from the safety of my couch) with its spiritual successor, Cruella.  Neither movie is especially terrible (nor especially great), but do I resent that I got sucked into their middling orbits.  The Disney marketing machine comes for us all eventually, and my personal weakness as a potential mark is apparently misbehaved women who toe the line between couture and drag.

As a convoluted prequel to 101 Dalmatians, Cruella is an embarrassment.  In order to reorient its dog-skinning, chain-smoking sociopath from villain to anti-hero, Cruella has to change every single aspect of her persona until she’s unrecognizable.  Emma Stone might wear the right wigs and drive the right cars to signal her performance as Cruella De Ville cosplay, but the movie goes miles out of its way to make it clear that she loves dogs and refuses to wear fur.  Confusingly, as much as it wants to disassociate Cruella from her future sins, the movie also frantically runs around London collecting as many minor characters & callbacks to 101 Dalmatians as it can for cheap nostalgia pops, so that the source material is never allowed to drift from the audience’s mind.  The central couple of Roger & Anita from 101 Dalmatians have no tangible impact on the plot at hand but are afforded distracting amounts screentime to underline the film’s flimsy connection to the animated original.  Even the shoe-horned inclusion of dalmatians in Cruella’s origin story feel weirdly out of place, not least of all because they’re rendered in uncanny CGI that doesn’t resemble any breed of dog that’s ever walked the earth.

As Disney’s version of a “punk” film, Cruella is even more of an embarrassment.  A young, chaotic fashion designer sandwiched between the glam & punk eras of 1970s London, our haute-to-trot anti-hero is clearly modeled after Vivienne Westwood, and the tattered glamour of her work shines through in Cruella’s fashion designs in a really fun, authentic way.  However, the visual iconography that frames that lookbook-in-motion feels much less like first-wave punk than it does like jacket art for an early-aughts Avril Lavigne CD.  The unrelenting, ungodly expensive soundtrack places at least one classic pop song into every single scene—so that the entire film plays like a 134min trailer for itself—but actual punk songs are few & far between.  The best you can hope for is the most recognizable singles from safer, venerated punk acts like Blondie & The Clash.  Otherwise, there’s a neutered cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with all its grimy Iggy-isms shielded from children’s ears, and a nighttime car chase is set to a fast-paced Queen track as if there aren’t a thousand punk singles that could’ve easily taken its place.  At the very least, it would’ve been nice to see Siouxsie Sioux, Exene Cervenka or, I dunno, the estates of Poly Styrene & Ari Up pick up an easy paycheck and a boost in Spotify streams here.

As much as I’m griping about Cruella‘s shaky punk credentials and sweaty desperation as a character-rehab prequel, I wouldn’t call it a total waste of time.  As a superhero movie for fashionable gay children, it’s a hoot.  Combining the Big Bad Anna Wintour drag routine of The Devil Wears Prada with Jenny Humphrey’s gate-crashing fashion shows on Gossip Girl (speaking of Avril Lavigne chic), Cruella is remarkably fun as an origin story for an emerging couturier on a revenge mission.  The costumes are fabulous, the (unskinned) underdog story is rousing, and Emma Thompson’s performance as the queen-bee villain is classic camp.  Instead of concluding with direct tie-ins to the opening notes of 101 Dalmatians, Cruella should’ve just signed off with its fully ascended anti-hero watching over London from the rooftops, wielding her sewing machine as a superweapon to avenge all the crimes of fashion on the streets below (à la The Dressmaker).  I might not understand this film as nostalgia bait or as punk rock posturing, but I do see its merits as a power fantasy for the future drag queens of America.  I hope they’re able to get their little hands on Cruella™ brand black & white wigs while they’re still young the same way Batman masks & He-Man swords were hot commodities when I was a kid.  It’s nice to have tangible props to help complete the fantasy.

Just like “Wells for Boys,” if you don’t get who Cruella is for, “That’s because it’s not for you, because you have everything.”  Personally speaking, the movie gave me everything I wanted out of it along with a bunch of stuff I never want out of anything. I recognize its many, many faults, but I also know that I’ll be suckered back into this exact scenario again as soon as Disney’s Ursula hits movie theaters in 2026.  Hopefully they cast an actual drag queen next time just to keep the routine fresh, but I’ll likely show up either way.

-Brandon Ledet

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