Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Watching Cruella feels like going into a fast-food franchise for a burger and fries and discovering someone added toppings, ranging from fruit salad to gourmet mushroom compote, cotton candy and Jell-O. I like them all for their surprising flavors, but they don’t always mix right.
With Cruella, the franchise element comes from production company Disney mining the popular 101 Dalmatians story for a prequel. As the title says, the focus shifts to villainess Cruella de Vil rather than puppies, which causes the first wave of surprise — at least for those hoping to treat young kids by reprising the original’s warmth and family values. Granted, the 1961 version includes tense moments since Cruella aims at turning those cute spotted puppies into a fur coat, but no viewer ever believed she might succeed.
How Cruella got to that goal in her life gets explained in her new origin story, where the real villainess comes in the form of Emma Thompson as a fashion designer, known as The Baroness. With murder in her past and plans of it in the future, The Baroness proves more ominous than her protégé Cruella, played by Emma Stone.
The two Oscar-winning Emmas provide gourmet elements to the movie as they balance exaggerated but believable emotion in their performances as outlandish characters. The bright colors of fruit salad appear with striking costumes and production design celebrating the Swinging London of the 1970s. Costume designer Jenny Beavan already won a couple of Oscars, and she challenges her award-winning work in Mad Max: Fury Road by adding fire to Cruella’s mix. Vintage clothes combine with new inventions in a display of visual virtuosity.
Cotton candy pop music lathers the soundtrack, with ’70s hits from The Rolling Stones, Queen, Ike and Tina Turner, and Blondie. Florence and the Machine add a new song, while classics like “Sympathy for the Devil” provide familiar sounds using topical lyrics.
As for Jell-O, it comes as pratfalls, funny lines and a strong supporting cast that do their best to hold the project together. That comes as a tough challenge since the screenwriters and director Craig Gillespie work with the view that more is better. Rather than stop with the simple 101 Dalmatians concept, they throw in elements of Charles Dickens, segue to a heist sequence, operate with bits of The Devil Wears Prada, and even reach into some Joker territory.
Pieces of the plot fall out now and then, but enough good bites remain to savor. Cruella is open in theaters and streams on Disney+.