REVIEW: ‘Cruella’ constricted by tonal imbalance

Hero. Antihero. Villain. Can a protagonist be all three? “Cruella” attempts to find out.

Emma Stone stars as Estella in this supposed prequel to the “101 Dalmatians” story. Estella, born with white and black hair, is a girl who was orphaned at a young age when her mother fell from a balcony during a party. Following the death, Estella finds her way to London and meets Jasper and Horace. The three become friends and pull schemes together to make money in order to survive.

Eventually, though, Estella gets her chance to leave her life of pick-pocketing and get her dream job as a fashion designer. Eventually, she gets to work for London’s top fashion individual, who simply goes by The Baroness (Emma Thompson). The more she works there, though, the more Estella finds reason to let out her true self, Cruella, and conquer the fashion world.

Disney has taken several shots in the last decade at bringing its animated features to a live action format. The Mouse House has all the money it needs to get a capable crew to create amazing sets and costumes, while also roping in a talented cast.

The problem, though, is Disney can’t seem to properly identify who the audience is for these films. It was especially true with 2020’s “Mulan” and it’s a fact again with Disney’s latest attempt.

In “Mulan,” it seemed like the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether they wanted a more serious war movie or a lighthearted adventure closer to the animated feature. With this picture, it’s somewhat similar.

At times, “Cruella” seems like its going in the direction of a mature crime drama. There are darker elements involved, such as murder, that push the movie to a more serious level.

However, there are plenty of segments littered throughout where the movie comes across like an upbeat heist romp. A good balance is never struck in between and the result is an awkward, unsatisfying viewing experience.

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Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures.

This is probably the lightest PG-13 rating I’ve seen, and the movie really loses its edge with some of its over-the-top moments. One sequence is where Cruella shows up to ruin one of Baroness’ events with a garbage truck the protagonists somehow picked up off screen.

“Cruella” probably could’ve been a much stronger film if it had a clearer tone. Disney could have gone bold and went for a darker film with an R rating, or it could have upped the comedy for a more relaxed experience.

The writing for Cruella herself is flawed, too. The character goes from dedicated worker directly to what’s practically a cartoon-level villain rather quickly. It could’ve been interesting had Cruella, who was a idealistic laborer, perhaps went a more realistic route, becoming a cutthroat businesswoman to rival the Baroness.

Instead, though, the character becomes an exaggerated individual who’s rather hard to take seriously. The way the filmmakers connected the aspect of mental health to the character was handled rather poorly, too.

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At the very least, Disney did bring in a good cast for this and it does bolster the movie a bit. Academy Award winner Emma Stone goes all in with this version of Cruella and does help to make the character an entertaining figure on screen.

Thompson, another Oscar winner, is also solid on screen, channeling a “Devil Wears Prada” energy as The Baroness. Joel Fry who plays Jasper is a good addition too, properly playing the voice of reason character.

An actor who’s absolutely wasted, though, is Paul Walter Hauser. The guy has proved how well he can act in “I, Tonya” and “Richard Jewell.”

However, in this Disney picture, Hauser is reduced to a complete bumbler as Horace. It’s fine including him as comic relief, but they make him so buffoonish that he barely has any real personality. Ultimately it takes away from the friendship between the main trio.

One area where “Cruella” does succeed in is how it looks. The movie is full of fashion and there’s an abundance of style. There’s a great chance this film will get an Academy Award nomination for its costume design next year.

Unfortunately, the film also has an abundance of needle drops. There are so many pop and rock songs inserted, even when one is not necessary. On top of that, the music doesn’t really have one specific theme.

The music in a film should stay consistent and match what’s happening, but there are times when that’s not the case with this one. Plenty of movies feature popular songs, but they incorporate it in a way that fits, like “Guardians of the Galaxy.” “Cruella” wasn’t able to manage such an incorporation.

There’s enough to appreciate in the costumes and the cast to prevent “Cruella” from being a total misfire. Yet it remains a poor attempt because of how its tone and main character were handled. 2.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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