Hadrina’s Review of Cruella

A true testament to why one should never underestimate family.

Cruella is a recent film depicting the rise of famed 101 Dalmatians villain Cruella de Vil. It was released on Disney’s pointless streaming service and only made free to users of the service very recently, and stars some White women named Emma fighting over clothes.

This review will contain spoilers for Cruella if you’re concerned about them. It was a better film than people gave it credit for, though most of the plot points are fairly predictable, so it may not be worth really worrying about spoilers.

The film opens with the early biography of Estella Miller as she is bullied and kicked out of school, and then is taken to an inhospitable aristocratic manor on a cliff, where her mother is killed by a dalmatian. She then becomes a homeless waif/career criminal who grows up stealing wallets, until her friend give her forged papers so she can get a job at a fashion boutique as she’s always wanted, and she meets the Baroness, a self-absorbed, arch fashion designer/supervillain who takes Estella under her wing. Because this is a film, the unnamed Baroness is of course the one who killed Estella’s mother, and Estella undergoes a rapid transformation into the psychotic Cruella de Vil in her attempts to dethrone the Baroness, who is also her birth mother, and take over the London fashion scene of the late ‘70s.

Now, you may have read that and thought that this sounds like a hot mess of an aesthetically absorbed, unnecessary feminist rehabilitation of a classic villain in a film that is little more than a transparent cash grab. If that was what you thought, congratulations on having the same level of knowledge of the film as every other troglodyte with an internet connection. 

To be undeservedly fair to said troglodytes, the premise itself is rather silly, and Cruella is not a masterpiece by any means. Its first half is far too slow and could have been trimmed by at least twenty minutes, and its second half is very packed and could also have been trimmed by at least ten. The writing and cinematography and so forth are all solid if a bit basic, as is the acting, except for Emma Stone’s occasionally changing accent (sometimes intentionally, sometimes seemingly not), and Emma Thompson’s struggle between playing Famous Serious Actress Emma Thompson and playing Ridiculous Cartoon Supervillain The Baroness. She can’t quite decide how much to ham up her role, despite the fact that she is playing a ludicrous and indeed hilarious character whose entire personality is aristocracy, meanness and selfishness.

But all that said, the film as a whole is quite good. The characters entertain, the visuals impress, the fashion dazzles, and the score in particular stands out for being so well done. Normally a score shouldn’t stand out overly to be effective, but this one stands as its own character in the film, and it does a very good job of setting the scenes and implying character motivations and interiority. The storyline, though ridiculous, is carried through in a fantastical way that lends it the feel of a fairy tale (occasional mentions of specific years blur this effect; leaving the exact date more to the imagination would have helped with this feeling). The side characters are by and large narrative devices rather than proper characters of their own, but in many ways that works for the film because the two Emmas are both psychopaths who see other people as assets to be used, rather than fully fledged human beings in their own rights. The relative flatness of the side characters often came across to me not that they weren’t well written, but rather that they were only important to the Emmas for what they could do for them, which I felt was a nice touch.

The storyline of the movie is of course ridiculous because someone so accomplished and powerful as the Baroness should never have fallen prey to someone as young and impulsive as Cruella. For all that the film is attempting to rehabilitate her (mostly by having her not kill puppies), she is still reckless, vindictive and foolish, and showing up on the back of a garbage truck and upstaging the Baroness once in a while should hardly have been enough to fluster someone with her level of competence and planning. The family connection between them, revealed late in the film, implies that all of Cruella’s talent and personality came from her mother, which makes her a petty copy of a greater person and therefore not a legitimate threat to them. The Baroness should have been able to use her as a tool for her own plans, and that she failed to do that is foolish. It is unclear if this is sloppy writing or if the Baroness was meant to be a less-than-competent character failing at a task any decent parent has accomplished by the time their child is a teenager. Narratives of children usurping their parents are always silly because that only happens when parents are sloppy or foolish, and that’s what we see here.

Of course, we know the Baroness was lazy and entitled, getting others to design her clothes for her and taking the credit and so forth. That is her ultimate downfall; she thinks she can reap the rewards of hard work without doing any (on-screen) hard work. Though we assume she worked hard in her youth, we see little evidence of that throughout the film, and the sloth with which she approaches the whole Cruella situation means she is doomed to fail from the beginning even to an impulsive child, who at the very least has the merit of working hard to attain her silly goals.

In the end, of course, the film comes down to a meaningless power struggle between two rich White people over an ugly house on a cliff and a last name that nobody cares about. But such petty goals are often the wont of the English aristocracy, and they’re the kinds of things that drive most people, so they can be forgiven for throwing everything away in pursuit of some vapid ideal. At least they both looked good doing it.

Overall, Cruella is a strong film that serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of controlling your children and of not going into business with people who are too eager to please, or too unstable. If the Baroness hadn’t let Estella in from the beginning, none of this would have happened. Of course, if she’d been more in control with what was happening with her unwanted child, none of this would have happened. This is a film about family, found and otherwise, and it argues very powerfully through the character of the Baroness that safety comes in monitoring and controlling that family so they don’t rise up against you.

Of course, Cruella made the mistake of leaving her disgraced mother alive, which will no doubt come back to bite her in the inevitable unnecessary sequel. I’m looking forward to that.

4 thoughts on “Hadrina’s Review of Cruella

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