Director: Craig Gillespie.
Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong, John McCrea, Kayvan Novak, Jamie Demetriou, Andrew Leung.
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Do we really need to know the origin of 101 Dalmatians villain Cruella de Vil? The same question could be asked of any baddie prequel, whether it be Star Wars Episodes I-III or Joker or Maleficent.
But if it works, it works. The Star Wars prequels worked intermittently, and Joker succeeded because it examined the social forces that could create such a person and wasn't too focused on being part of Batman's world. Similarly, Cruella works best when it's not beholden to a bigger franchise, and instead offers glimpses of a far more exciting non-Dalmatian-related movie.
A perfectly cast Stone stars as Estella, the woman who will become the dog-skinning villainess. A harrowing turn of events leaves Estella as an orphan who falls in with fellow street urchins Jasper (Fry) and Horace (Hauser). As they eke out a living in '60s and '70s London, Estella strives to accomplish her dream of becoming a fashion designer, but to do so may require her harnessing her inner baddie, which her mother nicknamed Cruella.
Buried beneath a so-so origin story that's too mature for the younger kids who love 101 Dalmatians is a fascinating tale of fashion industry rivalries battling it out at the dawn of punk. Estella going head-to-head with the equally devious Baroness (a perfect Thompson) is reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada, perhaps unsurprising given Aline Brosh McKenna worked on the scripts of both films.
But this is when the film is at its best. With its Vivienne Westwood punk/goth costuming, an overloaded soundtrack featuring The Stooges and The Clash, and a brash "we are the youth!" attitude, Cruella is, at times, a riveting inter-generational culture war.
This is not the whole film though, and when it slips back into franchise mode and focuses on creating Cruella the dog-skinner, it is a lesser film. Everything feels more laboured, the story loses its sparkle, and you start to wonder who this film is aimed at because, let's face it, creating an iconic villain is not all rainbows and puppies. You need a certain amount of darkness, and for things to not turn out well for the puppies.
The costumes, set designs and production design are outstanding, as are the performances and the general hyper-real vibe of it all. But in between are frustrations, such as some unconvincing CG dogs, an era-breaking score, a distractingly overloaded soundtrack that's like someone hitting skip on Spotify every minute, and the difficulty the screenplay has in keeping Cruella sympathetic while simultaneously plotting her path to villainhood.
Like someone forced to wear an oversized coat, the prequel requirements of Cruella hide a better film. This spotted coat doesn't fit the interesting person buried inside it.