Lately, Disney has had a burning urge to explain the origins of its cartoon villains. The need doesn’t feel borne out of an attempt to broaden or deepen the source material, as author Gregory Maguire brilliantly achieved with his Oz-related nov5el Wicked, but mainly out of artistic lethargy and greed. The mentality is that of a “sure thing,” one lacking in imagination and driven by corporate suits who employ creatives as their all-too-willing henchmen.
The attempt to retrofit a villain’s story and provide a reasonable, resonating psychological motive for their evildoings is a fundamental exercise in pointlessness. Such is the case with Cruella (★★☆☆☆), a hyperbolic, hyperactive exploration of how the iconic baddie with the half-black, half-white mane went from a gifted, aspiring fashion designer to a demented psycho with a taste for vengeance and Dalmatian fur coats.
The latter is alluded to in a “tee-hee,” jokey way, but is never adequately addressed by director Craig Gillespie, who cops out, revealing Cruella de Vil as a lover of all things canine. The alteration literally strips Cruella of any purpose, turning the overblown spectacle into a waste of two hours and fifteen minutes. It’s the filmmaker sitting at a $200 million spinning wheel and producing a long thread of absolutely nothing of value.
Yes, there is a tragic backstory for young Cruella (Emma Stone) involving the death of a beloved parent, and her eventual rise as a punk guerilla designer determined to crush her rival, The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a narcissistic fashion doyenne in swinging ’60s London. But Cruella works less as an origin story and more as a farcical swipe at the self-important fashion industry and its outsized egos and talent.
Stone gives a predictably unhinged performance — she’s a female Joker-lite — and Thompson plays only one note, but at least she plays it to delectable perfection. (If you want to see supremely great acting at work, fixate on Thompson’s fluttering eyelids, or watch carefully the conviction with which she discards a used toothpick.)
“People need a villain to believe in, so I’m happy to fit the bill,” Cruella says as her personality transforms from mild-mannered to psychotic overnight. The Baroness later one-ups her, noting, “You can’t care about anyone else. Everyone else is an obstacle.”
The same could be said for Disney’s Cruella. It’s an obstacle to original, fresh entertainment. Let’s pray Monstro the Whale isn’t next on their origin-story wish list.
Cruella opens in theaters and is available for a $29.99 premium on Disney+ starting Friday, May 28. (It will be available for free to all Disney+ subscribers on August 27.) Visit www.disneyplus.com.
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