Confession: I’ve never seen “101 Dalmatians” in any form — not novel, not cartoon, not live-action remakes. Maybe the cartoon never replayed on “Wonderful World of Disney” when I was kid.
The others I missed on purpose. I prefer my live-action cartoons to have action figures.
But Disney Corp. finds a way to repackage intellectual properties until they eventually appeal to everyone.
The two Emmas
Short of adding lightsabers and a claw-vs.-shield fight between Wolverine and Captain America, casting Emma Stone in the lead role is the best way to get my money.
The fact that my other beloved Emma, Emma Thompson, plays opposite Stone in “Cruella,” a film of dueling villains is homemade whip cream atop the bowl of fresh strawberries.
Those two actors bring enough dynamo to the screen that I’ll forgive a lot of mediocre storytelling.
That’s good, because there is plenty of mediocre storytelling to be forgiven.
We meet Cruella (Stone) when she’s Estella, a mischievous girl whose free spirit is too creative for the school’s stiff-collared headmaster who expels Estella after too many blots on her record.
Estella’s mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), decides to move to London and stops to ask Baroness von Hellman (Thompson) for money with assurances she’ll keep her mouth shut.
The Baroness sicks her three dalmatians on Estella’s mother, who falls to her death — the first of far too many tedious anthropomorphized CGI dog escapes in the film.
The moment is the film’s lowest point. Catherine’s death is dark and treats life too cheaply for what is otherwise a jocular outing filled with heists, punk rock, and cartoonish hijinks.
Estella flees to London, where she falls in with young thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). The trio get by with small-time heists until Jasper finagles a job for Estella, a talented fashion designer, at the Baroness’ department store.
The Baroness rules like the Iron Lady. She is the HBIC and spews meanness the way machine guns burp out bullets in an 80s action movie. Thompson is a good enough actor to believably render casual cruelty, but it all gets to be too much.
Thompson doesn’t do anything wrong with the Baroness, but then there isn’t much for her to do. We learn much of Cruella’s motivations, but the Baroness is given no depth of character other than she’s a meaner, older, and less creative version of Cruella.
“Cruella” does with Thompson’s talent what I thought impossible: The film makes her character generic.
Estella adopts the secret identity of Cruella and stages a series of intricate flash mobs to embarrass the Baroness’ in the middle of seasonal shows, causing to lose her stranglehold on the London fashion scene.
Actor or mannequin
The set pieces are well done, and Stone and company pull them off with pinnace, but there’s too many of them.
After a while, it feels like Stone is less like an actor and more like a mannequin for oddball high fashion with a ripping soundtrack.
The confrontations of the Baroness and Cruella feels like a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
The Baroness finally discovers who Cruella really is, captures her, ties her to a chair, and tries to murder her in fire.
There’s are a few more twists. I won’t spoil them, but they’re wholly predictable if you’ve ever seen a movie before.
Overall, it feels like watching “The Devil Wears Prada” again with a Disney Co. skin overlaid on the product.
I admit I am a muggle when it comes to high fashion. I recognize it as art.
Like most art that’s not between the panels of a comic book, I don’t understand it and feel like asking questions about it will lead to people trying to make me feel stupid.
“Cruella” isn’t so high an art that I feel stupid for not understanding it, but I do feel a little stupid for not waiting until it was free on Disney+.
Three things I loved about “Cruella:”
- The two Emmas.
- The terrific classic rock and punk soundtrack.
- And the Oscar for best use of a garbage truck in a car chase goes to … .
Two things that could’ve been better:
- Too many scenes with CGI dogs doing cartoon things.
- The murder of Estella’s mother.