Strutting through much of Cruella as the true villainess of the picture, Emma Thompson’s callously evil Baroness declares at one point that “gorgeous and vicious” is her “favorite combination” of character traits. That great line and pairing is also a fitting description for the movie and its turbulent pendulum. Much of Cruella’s ambitions arrive at spiteful and malicious, wholly suitable given the title character’s historical mystique and the 49 listed synonyms for “evil” on Thesaurus.com, of which “cruel,” curiously, does not make the list.
Jointly so, “gorgeous” is the proper baseline for descriptors necessary to commend the many lavish accouterments created and enjoyed by Craig Gillespie’s crime comedy (the studio’s category label, not mine). Yet, the real deceit of the movie is how coyly it melds the Baroness’s two choice words to edify each other. Making anything vicious look gorgeous and vice versa is a slick little ruse of entertainment Cruella fulfills. So what’s vicious, what’s gorgeous, and what’s both? Plenty.
Let’s start with the fiendish. A series of tragic circumstances, par for the tried-and-true Disney course, turn the young Estella de Vil (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), with her signature two-toned hair, first, into a troublemaking delinquent at school befriended by the kindly Anita Darling (re-appearing later as a helpful adult played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Killing Eve) and, second, into a runaway orphan loose on the streets of London. Two fellow ragamuffin teens, brothers Jasper and Horace, take Estella into their condemned home and groom her as a member of their grifting racket and act as calming compasses to her simmering rancor.
Chummy as they age and become, with the trio now played by La La Land Oscar winner Emma Stone, Yesterday’s Joel Fry, and Paul Walter Hauser of Richard Jewell, there’s nothing they won’t lift and no one they won’t exploit. Hauser’s Bob Hoskins emulation loves to plot and declare “the angle” to each ploy. Part survivors and part entrepreneurs, these three count as smarter dreamers more than cheap vandals. Still, good luck endorsing that kind of career arc to Disney audiences (still they try).
Pivoting to the opulent amid the digressing criminality, Estella aspires to be a fashion designer and has long emulated the celebrated work of the Baroness von Hellman (Thompson). A planted application from her two buddies lands Estella a lowly job at Hellman’s high-end fashion house, but it counts as a foot in the door. Sure enough, her boots kick their way to get her creative talent seen enough to score a promotion to the Baroness’s inner circle of designers alongside sniveling underlings and kiss-up assistants.
The entire ensemble of characters, large and small, wealthy and destitute, are dressed to the nines in sumptuous outfits designed by two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road, A Room With a View) and flushed just right with the rouge-and-mousse work of hair and makeup designer Nadia Stacey (Captain America: The First Avenger). Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (I, Tonya) poses the two Emmas every chance he gets to show them off against the sizable settings of period interiors crafted by the team commanded by production designer Fiona Crombie (The Favourite). Not a hem or wall of construed glamour is undercut.
It’s around that saturation point that Cruella splashes the decadent and diabolical together. That burst comes from Emma Thompson sensationally commanding every inch of her haughty and icy screen presence. Step for step, Emma Stone does her damnedest to ruffle frocked feathers with a crass edge that shows a glint of the extreme side that defines the dalmatian-hunting classic. Gallivanting to a soundtrack of hard rock of the film’s chosen 1970s era, all are strutting their stuff and look spectacular doing so.
Once personal histories between the two females come to light and those realizations push Estella towards the personality schism she shelved long ago, Cruella becomes, as they would say in professional wrestling, an elaborate heel vs. heel feud. Those bouts are difficult to pull off in terms of rooting interest and crowd interaction. Folks tend to wave their pennant for the lesser evil to win, but not with the gusto they would cheering on a true hero. Therein lies the challenge, yet it’s one I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie has faced before and with harder film subjects.
The Baroness’s trial to her emerging protegée is to make a statement and challenge the world. Estella is indeed born better than her origins and madly brilliant beyond mere competence. When Estella flips the switch to become Cruella and steps to The Baroness, the senior maven doubles-down against the notion of possible competition with her comeback of “people who talk of power don’t have it.” That’s all the more reason to upstage your rival and absorb your enemy’s power by taking what they love, which is, in this case, attention and notoriety.
There are levels of superfluousness in Cruella, undoubtedly. The selections from music supervisor Susan Jacobs (Promising Young Woman), in total, bring a great deal of energy to the film and help compensate for a Nicholas Britell score that veers too jazzy and clashes with the rest of the vibe. A few inspired tracks are present, but too many of the songs regrettably bludgeon cues that signal overly-obvious statements and happenings.
Speaking of blatancy, Stone’s narration is a tad excessive and Mark Strong’s supporting clout seemed to be reserved solely for the final denouement dump of expositional surprises. For a visual movie like Cruella, this is a place for “show” over “tell.” The increasing number of schemes and the indulgent need to explain feigned faults and broken promises lengthen this movie needlessly beyond two hours, excesses that fall upon the screenwriting partners of Tony McNamara (The Favourite) and Dana Fox (The Wedding Date) picking from the story pieces first conceived by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, We Bought a Zoo), Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey, Venom), and actor Steve Zissis (TV’s Togetherness).
Moreover, Cruella tosses that “psycho” term and label around flippantly, even with its successful motivation to be more interesting and darker than the usual live-action works from the Mouse House. It offers a villainess to believe in, but what does that say to audiences? Swinging for sympathy towards the amoral could have amounted to the same mistake as Maleficent seven years ago. Luckily, the conniptions and confrontations of “Emma vs. Emma” are damn fun. There’s a welcome place to relish in their wickedness, while some will echo the Baroness afterward to define the movie with her line of “I think you’re… something.”