Movie Review: Cruella

Surprisingly good, but not the way you might expect

Cruella (2021)

In theaters; 3.5/5

There are three important things Cruella gets right, and they make the movie not just worth watching, but maybe even worth watching twice. First and biggest, Cruella isn’t a standalone film. Where, say, Maleficent effectively kickstarted its own universe on a separate track from Sleeping Beauty, Cruella is a direct prequel, setting up the action of 1961’s 101 Dalmatians even as it tells its own story. That’s this movie’s secret sauce--it doesn’t offer a fresh new take on Cruella DeVille. It just gives us her background, fully recognizing (without excuse or softening) that she’s going to become the puppy-killing harridan we all know. That’s a very good move.

Corollary to that prequel status, it’s set somewhere around 1969/1970 London, in the West End fashion/couture scene, which was a quasi-timeless near-cartoonish wonderland of its own. It gets to be a little … much … but in the main the outrageous costuming and over-the-top vibe Cruella has always evoked is captured well (and it allows some gentle race-swapping to happen in the casting, which works seamlessly in front of that fantasyland background). However, the other half of that equation involves the movie’s double-edged sword: Emma Thompson. Thompson owns in this movie. As The Baroness, she has the arch-fiend fashion-diva vibe totally dialed in here, and she threatens to blow Emma Stone off the screen every time they’re together. Against Thompson, Stone looks insecure and a little pathetic, competing against a figure she can never truly match. 

The gulf between the performers is stark; Stone is pretty good, mind you, but Thompson is out of this world good and Stone can’t help but be upstaged no matter how hard she tries. It threatens to kill the movie, but as the credits roll there’s a realization of a quiet genius at work, and this is why the movie is worth a re-watch. What Cruella does (especially in the interplay between the up-and-coming Cruella and the take-no-prisoners Baroness) is explore the root of the title character’s mental illness. It lays the perfect foundation for why she will be the psycho she becomes, without inflicting it on her in front of us (or giving us excuses to forgive her). Cruella doesn’t end this movie as a villain, but there’s a conversation to be had here about how the events of this film will metastasize in her psyche and produce the maniac to come. It makes the movie surprisingly smart.  

3.5 stars of 5: I liked it, and would watch it again if the circumstances were right.