The “Maleficent” inspired “Cruella” begins with a murder and settles, eventually, into a tale of revenge.
Starring two Oscar winners, each dazzlingly on her game and laboring to make a fun night out of this back-engineered take on how Cruella DeVil came to be a fashion statement and came to favor fashions made from Dalmatian hides, it’s a film that shows how great casting and design can only take you so far.
Despite the presence of Emma Stone in the title role and Empress Emma Thompson as her “Devil Wears Dalmatian” boss and mentor, few of its two hours and fourteen minutes of exquisite sets and costumes and perfectly-coiffed and modulated performances ever show the spark of life.
It’s too polished to be “a dog,” too charmless to produce laughs.
We have to wonder if “laughs” were ever the point of director Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”) and the screenwriters. In a sequel the world wasn’t begging for and of a character who was perfectly delicious without a “back story,” that “What is the point?” question lingers in the air when somebody other than a studio “suit” should have answered it on Day One.
Maybe asking who the audience was to be would have helped, too. It’s not-quite “Harley Quinn” or “Joker” nasty, not “Maleficent” bittersweet or funny.
Bathed in venomous voice-over by Stone’s anti-heroine, we’re told “I’m dead” before we see how the child then-named Estella became an orphan at a fashion gala hosted by the imperious designer, The Baroness (Thompson).
We’re treated to an Artful Dodger/”Oliver Twist” childhood in the Mod London of the ’60s, before con artist, mistress of disguise Estella and her two adoptive pals turned henchmen about-to-become “minions” (Joel Fry and from Paul Walter Hauser) set their sights on bigger prey.
Not at first, of course. Estella, hiding her shock of half-white hair under wigs and dyes, aspires to a career in design. And despite a very low-on-the-ladder start, it looks like she might get her way, studying at the feet of the mistress of “‘Normal’ is the cruelest insult of all.”
Estella becomes a confidante, the talent behind the “genuis” of House of Baroness.
But something will set Estella off, bring out her inner “Cruella” and make her the attention-stealing underground bete noir of the Baroness in 1970s London.
There are dogs — some real, some digital (Seriously, Disney?). There are other accomplices — John McCrea is the fabulous boutique owner who assists Estella/Cruella, Mark Strong is “the valet” long in the Baroness’s employ.
Hauser, from director Gillespie’s “I, Tonya,” slings a Cockney accent and is gifted with the one running “gag,” a con-man/hustler/pickpocket who’s always asking “What’s the angle?” even when Estella thinks she can leave that life behind thanks to the design fame and success, just around the corner. She’s grateful for the chance.
“Gratitude is for losers,” Boss Baroness warns.
If you’ve ever read a review here, you know I sprinkle pieces like this with funny lines from a funny film. There pretty much aren’t any in the Dana Fox/Tony McNamara script. Perhaps Disney could have let Oscar-winning screenwriter Thompson take a pass at this.
What is here is one stunning fashion moment after another, one vast Black and White Ball or gala opening for The Fall Line.
What’s also here is another “Forrest Gump” overkill soundtrack, an endless stream of pop song rights purchased and deployed to try and liven this moribund movie up. Blondie, The Clash, hell, here’s Tina Turner’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
That, alas, is what’s missing from “Cruella” — love. Not romance or anything of that sort, but poignant appeal for a girl who saw her mother murdered or actors in love with their roles and what they get to do with them.
There is never a moment I didn’t wholly buy into the Two Emmas and their delicious on-screen rivalry. But there isn’t a moment where you lean back, laugh and revel at what glorious fun this is, when it plainly could have been and should have been.
MPA Rating: PG-13, some violence and thematic elements.
Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, John McCrea and Mark Strong.
Credits: Director by Craig Gillespie, script by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, based on the Dodie Smith novel “101 Dalmatians.” A Walt Disney release.
Running time: 2:14