So, I saw Craig Gillespie’s Cruella last weekend, and I cannot understand why it’s received as many negative reviews as it has. The Critics Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes says that it “can’t quite answer the question of why its title character needed an origin story,” but what the hell does that mean? Villains are sexiest, most dynamic characters in any film, so it’s natural to wonder where they came from. Cruella (played by Emma Stone in this adaptation), in particular, always fascinated me in the original 1961 One Hundred and One Dalmatians cartoon, with her fashionable, spindly appearance and her posh, patronizing attitude. I don’t understand why or how a biographical film should explain itself. After all, isn’t the point of storytelling to simply tell the story? I never needed an explanation for why the Joker needed a backstory, so why would I need one for Cruella?
Anyway, the Critics Consensus got one thing right: Cruella is indeed a “dazzling visual feast” — and it’s a ton of fun. The relationships between our main characters keep the film fast-paced, dynamic, and both funny and touching in turn. I strongly believe that films over two hours long rarely merit such length, but Cruella (at two hours and fourteen minutes) does. It is a nuanced story about power, friendship, and family, that functions as a memoir and a mystery at the same time. And the sheer breadth of this story requires a thorough background on Cruella’s early life and her friendships, which is delivered in detail in the beginning.
Cruella also does an excellent job grounding the audience in 1970s London. As a huge 70s music fan, I was thrilled with the inclusion of songs by The Rolling Stones, The Zombies, and Black Sabbath, and was even more impressed by the film’s electrifying nod to The Stooges via its inclusion of their 1969 track I Wanna Be Your Dog. Such a diverse soundtrack displays not only a faithfulness to the film’s time period, but also a commitment to including songs whose tones and lyrics fit the narrative. Even Call Me Cruella, the original Florence + The Machine song composed for the film in tandem with Nicholas Britell’s score, fits into the soundtrack flawlessly, rising and falling with the narrative action like any good score should.
The Wikipedia page for this film states that Cruella in set during London’s punk rock movement, suggesting that the film is meant to center around punk, and that’d be a little extreme to say — yes, Cruella’s rebellious storyline and irreverent characters run in the same vein as punk’s principles, but I wouldn’t say that punk is truly in Cruella’s DNA. If it were, the characters would be angstier and the soundtrack would include pieces by The Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, and other major players on the London scene. Yes, I recognize that this is a Disney movie, and that a true ode to punk would hardly be palatable to mainstream audiences and young children, but still. Don’t call something a punk movie if it isn’t really a punk movie.
Another critique of mine is Disney’s decision to exclude Cruella De Vil’s smoking habit because of its supposed lack of family-friendliness. What a load of bullshit! People are murdered in this movie, and that’s not exactly a family-friendly activity, either. Seriously — Cruella’s mother dies within the first thirty minutes of this movie, and for the majority of the film, Cruella feels responsible for her death. If a child sitting in the audience can handle that, then surely they can handle a cigarette.
The lack of smoking also robbed the film of its temporal and character-driven authenticity. Everyone remembers watching Cruella flounce around with her long cigarette holder in the 1961 cartoon, and even Emma Stone admitted that she was disappointed that she couldn’t utilize the prop, claiming that she found it challenging to portray the character without smoking. Likewise, smoking was a popular habit during the 1960s and 1970s and excluding it from the story pulls the audience out of the world of the film. I understand that smoking is an unhealthy habit, but there is no need to damage the merit of a story out of the foolish, futile desire to sanitize history.
Besides, depicting smoking in one particular film isn’t going to set off a generation of chain smokers. There is more than enough information out there about the dangers of smoking, and showing a cigarette in a film isn’t going to undo all the work of those terrifying anti-smoking commercials or the astronomical prohibitive taxes on tobacco. Trust me, if a kid is intent on smoking someday, they’re going to do it whether Cruella holds a cigarette or not.
These are my only complaints, and of course they have nothing to do with what matters most: The acting, the storytelling, the writing, and the visuals. On the whole, this film is so compelling that I found myself disappointed when it ended. I adore that it focuses on platonic and familial relationships rather than on romantic ones, and that the few moments of romance are fleeting and implied rather than focused on outright.
The film is by and large about being yourself and finding your tribe — I am overjoyed, for instance, that Cruella was able to remain “crazy” and villainous while also redeeming herself with her friends. And I was delighted by the creative way Disney appeased its purists in the post-end credits scene, explaining how Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Roger (Kayvan Novak) ended up with Perdita and Pongo, setting the stage for the events of 101 Dalmatians.
If these are the sorts of stories that Disney plans on telling in the future, then I am all ears/eyes, because Cruella was an enchanting, inspiring gift.