Cruella (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): She is actually not that cruel…

“Cruella” is often uneven and schizophrenic in its mixed result. On one hand, it seems to aspire to be mean and nasty, and there are some deliciously vicious moments to be savored mainly thanks to the entertaining works from its two main performers. On the other hand, it is also limited by its apparent need of box office appeal as another major blockbuster film from Disney, and that unfortunately dulls many of its edgier moments in addition to preventing it from something truly memorable.

As many of you know, the movie is supposed to be the origin story of Cruella de Vil, who is one of the most unforgettable villains in the history of Disney animation. While “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961) is not exactly excellent in my humble opinion, Cruella, who is voiced by Betty Lou Gerson, is quite funny and striking in the sheer grandiosity of her evil, and she is inarguably the main reason why that film is still remembered by me and many others despite being 50 years old at present.

Cruella was already played on the screen by Glenn Close in the 1996 live action film, and, considering that even Close’s over-the-top performance could not surpass the 1961 animation film version, it must have been a hefty job for Emma Stone from the very beginning. Fortunately, Stone, who can be charming as shown from her Oscar-winning performance in “La La Land” (2016) while also capable of being bold and edgy as shown from “The Favourite” (2018), manages to hold the center at least. Although her performance is often limited and hampered by many plot contrivances in the film, Stone is certainly having a ball here, and it is a shame that the movie does not go all the way along with her for more naughty fun.

Accompanied with Stone’s sardonic narration, the first act of the movie depicts Cruella’s early years. While she was raised fairy well under her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham), young Cruella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland ), who was named Estella at the time of her birth, could not help but driven by her wild and impulsive side from time to time, and that accordingly led to a number of incidents including the unfortunate death of her mother. Consequently becoming a helpless orphan, young Cruella goes to London by herself, and, though the story is set in the late 20th century, we get a little Dickensian moment as she comes to befriend two little orphan criminals who kindly let her live in their little shabby residence.

Anyway, several years later, Cruella, who is now played by Stone, is still living with Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and they all grow up to be thriving street criminals earning their modest living via stealing anything good enough for them. As she frequently designs various disguises for her and her loyal accomplices, Cruella comes to yearn more for entering the fashion business in London someday, and, what do you know, she comes to get an opportunity for that thanks to a little help from Jasper and Horace, who have her get employed at one of the most luxurious department stores in the city.

However, Cruella soon finds herself becoming as miserable as Cinderella while being stuck with menial jobs at the near bottom of the system, so she eventually decides to go wild again, and the following artistic result of hers happens to draw the attention of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an infamous fashion designer who is the head of the most prestigious fashion house in London. Because her fashion house really needs some fresh talent and creativity right now, the Baroness promptly hires Cruella, and Cruella learns one thing after another as observing how fiercely and ruthlessly her new boss manages her business everyday.

Now you may be reminded of, yes, “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), whose adapted screenplay was incidentally written by Aline Brosh McKenna, one of the co-writers of “Cruella”. Like Meryl Streep in that film, Emma Thompson looks imperious and demanding as expected, and she has several juicy moments as the Baroness comes to show more of her dark sides later in the story due to her eventual conflict with Cruella.

While maintaining her disguise as thin as Clark Kent’s under the Baroness, Cruella decides to reach for the top of the field by any means necessary, and her two accomplices and a gay fashion shop owner are ready to help her following daring fashion stunts against the Baroness in public. Costume designer Jenny Beavan, who recently won her second Oscar for “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), surely has a field day during this part, and I must say that I was particularly amused by the moment involved with a trash truck.

However, the movie subsequently hesitates on the threshold before becoming really mean and nasty, and then it stumbles more during its last act although Stone and Thompson dutifully carry the film to the end. In case of the other main cast members including Emily Beecham, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jon McCrea, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Mark Strong, they are merely required to fill their spots around Thompson and Stone, though Fry and Hauser provide some cheerful sense of humor to the story at least.

Directed by Craig Gillespie, who previously gave us “I, Tonya” (2017), “Cruella” is not entirely without entertaining elements, but it is ultimately marred by its glaring incoherence in terms of story and characters, and I felt rather dissatisfied as walking out of the screening room along with many audiences. Although we all wore mask as demanded, I could not help but become more conscious of the lack of social distancing at times during my viewing, and that will probably be what I will remember most from the movie.

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