Walt Disney Studios
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Dana Fox, Tony McNamara
Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong
One of the best gags in The Simpsons is C. Montgomery Burns’ musical number, “See My Vest.” A jaunty little ditty about the joys of skinning animals, it’s one of the perfect examples of what makes Mr. Burns’ such a memorable character: his evil. The writers of The Simpsons understood that Mr. Burns’ petty cruelty was what made him such fun to watch.
Cruella de Vil, the lead villain of 101 Dalmatians, was cut from a similar cloth of villainy. The film gives no depth to her character because it’s not necessary. Her name is Cruella, she wants to kidnap a litter of puppies to turn them into a fur coat, and she has a catchy theme song. Nothing more needs to be known! Her two-dimensional evilness is precisely what makes her so memorable.
On the flip side, the film Cruella’s attempt to put a sympathetic backstory to this character is precisely what makes it so forgettable. Like most of Disney’s recent live-action remakes, it’s a competently produced work. The sets and costumes are eye-catching enough, and Emma Stone and Emma Thompson both have fun chewing the scenery as the titular Cruella and her rival, the Baroness, respectively.
But the technical competency of Cruella is undermined by its lackluster pacing and story. This is a ninety-minute film squeezed into two hours. Something that becomes apparent whenever the film takes a moment to explain something the audience already knows. Characters like Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) could be exorcised from the film entirely and have little effect on the overall plot.
Though none of this would be enough to save the film from its most fatal flaw. Like so many other villainous origin films before it, Cruella tries casting its protagonist as one who was badly misunderstood.
Look, the film says. Cruella wasn’t all bad! Rather than the snob heiress that she was in 101 Dalmatians, the Cruella we see here is a brilliant fashion designer. One who was both wronged and ignored by the world around her. And her supposed cruelty is just revenge against a world that’s already mistreated her. It’s in trying to understand Cruella de Vil that the film badly misunderstands the character. She isn’t meant to be understood. She’s meant to be hated.
Trying to give a sympathetic backstory to Cruella de Vil would be like trying to give a sympathetic backstory to Mr. Burns. Indeed, anytime we explore Burns’ childhood, we see that he has always been the same spiteful, cruel human being we see on the show. When he recalls a particularly fond boyhood memory of crippling an Irishmman, he’s so delighted that he cackles all day. Mr. Burns isn’t a product of the world’s evils. He’s a proud member of the world’s evils.
It’s the same role Cruella de Vil played in the original 101 Dalmatians. Her villainy gave her agency. She wasn’t reacting to a world that wronged her. She simply saw what she wanted, and tried to take it. In Cruella, she isn’t a supplier of the world’s wrongs. She’s just another receiver of them. And that’s what makes this technically competent film into a flat and mediocre one.