Sympathy for the de Vil: ‘Cruella’ is unnecessary but entertaining camp

Emma Stone and Emma Thompson ham it up in this overlong origin tale

Brad Keefe
"Cruella"

I’m reminded of an old bit by comedian Patton Oswalt in which he fantasizes about traveling back in time to stop George Lucas from making the “Star Wars” prequels. He imagines the conversation with Lucas after Oswalt tells him he loves Darth Vader.

“In the first movie, you get to see him as a little kid,” says Lucas

“Uh, is he like a Damien 'Omen' kid and evil and killing people with his mind?” Oswalt asks.

“Nah, he’s just like this little kid, and then he gets taken away from his mom, and he’s very sad.”

There’s something to be said about a villain that’s just… evil. They’re the foil for our protagonist and make rooting against them the easier moral choice.

But the latest trend in Hollywood trying to make something original but not that original is the villain backstory movie. They sometimes are quite good on their own, but they seldom justify their existence.

“Cruella” is Disney’s latest live-action revisiting of its animated classics. It’s obviously more original than past live-action remakes, which followed the plots of the original films, while still playing it relatively safe with a built-in audience.

"Cruella" is unnecessary. It’s too long. But it’s also generally delightful as a standalone, a weird and stylish movie that could pass for punk rock in the Disney world. Adding to that punk rock aesthetic, “Cruella” is set in 1970s London and has a pretty banging if kind of obvious soundtrack that only a Disney budget could afford.

After a prologue featuring the young future villain (spoiler: see Darth Vader above), we establish Estella (Emma Stone) as a rebellious young street grifter who manages to work her way into London’s high-fashion world. She catches the attention of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an egotistic fashion magnate with little regard for other humans. In other words, the villain who made the villain.

A delightfully staged heist also establishes a link to Estella’s past that will let us all know just how Cruella became so cruel.

A pretty apt touchpoint for “Cruella” would be the recently dropped Olivia Rodrigo album Sour, which is a pastiche of influences so worn-on-the-sleeve that it’s hard to tell what’s tribute and what’s ripoff.

The plot (and magnificent costumes) of “Cruella” scream “The Devil Wears Prada.” It often feels positively Tim Burton-y, and there’s certainly a dollop of “Joker” here. But like Sour, there’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had in this mashup, even if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel or offer up anything original.

Of course, much credit goes to the Emmas. Stone playing mousy for half of the movie just leaves you aching for that caterpillar to turn into the evil butterfly, and she savors every moment once she’s let off the leash. Thompson is also clearly having a blast with the classic one-note villain that audiences know Cruella as.

Director Craig Gillespie is adept at camping it up, having most recently directed “I, Tonya.” But he also takes full advantage of a Disney budget with some elaborate heist-movie flair.

Still the question remains: Why? What did this movie being a Disney villain’s backstory really add that a fun, original movie couldn’t have done better? Not much, as it were, except that it wouldn’t have been made otherwise.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 14 minutes (and rated PG-13, mostly for its grown-up themes and some violence), it could be significantly shorter, although it seldom feels like a slog.

Still, "Cruella" feels like an absolute fresh delight next to the two “Maleficent” movies and is already in the upper-tier of the questionable Disney live-action remakes.

Does it add anything really? Not especially. But odds are you’ll have fun.

“Cruella”

Now playing in theaters and for rental on Disney+

3 stars out of 5