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Emma Stone as the title character in a scene from Cruella.

Laurie Sparham/The Associated Press

  • Cruella
  • Directed by Craig Gillespie
  • Written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara
  • Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson and Mark Strong
  • Classification PG; 134 minutes

Somewhere deep in the corridors of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, there is a group of frustrated Saturday Night Live writers kicking themselves for not coming up with the idea of Cruella first.

In the spirit of SNL’s viral Grouch sketch from 2019 – which reconfigured the dumpster-diving Sesame Street muppet Oscar in a faux-gritty anti-hero vein à la Todd Phillip’s Joker – the back-of-the-napkin conceit of Cruella could have made for a very fine 12:05 a.m. bit of comedy. Imagine, if you will, a super-stylized dramedy in which we finally discover the dark, sexy, cool backstory of … um, the villain from 101 Dalmatians? You know, that crazy lady who wanted to skin all those cute puppies? It’d be a perfectly ridiculous satirization of Hollywood’s desperate desire to raid its intellectual-property vaults until there is nothing left.

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Unfortunately for SNL, and for moviegoers tired of playing these reboot-as-Mad Libs games, Disney beat late-night television at its own game, delivering the real-deal, not-a-joke Cruella this week to theatres and the Premier Access arm of its streaming service. And it is mighty impressive, in a stupefying way, just how close Cruella’s filmmakers get to pulling the dang thing off. This isn’t to say that the movie is a success – it is embarrassing on many levels, and seems to be frequently at odds with its presumed family-friendly audience – but as far as movies that have no business existing outside sketch-comedy land go, it could’ve been worse.

Opinion: Cruella was created as a woman not fit for ‘polite society’, but also as a clever social commentary

The plot is a joke delivered with a straight face: an origin story detailing just how the dastardly Cruella de Vil (oops, sorry, she’s called Estella de Vil at the beginning) became such a crazed maniac with a fetish for dalmatian-patterned couture. The exact reason is revealed about five minutes into the film – and it is so oh-c’moooonnnnnn ridiculous that you might turn the thing off then and there.

Emma Thompson is enjoyable as the Anna Wintour-ish Baroness.

Laurie Sparham/The Associated Press

But if you stick with Cruella, you’ll be transported to a semi-fun, if eventually exhausting, lark set in London’s swinging 1970s, where everyone is dressed to the nines and the needle-drops never ever stop. (Seriously, director Craig Gillespie, who previously maxed out his music budget to an embarrassing degree with 2017′s I, Tonya, soundtracks his action here with Supertramp, the Rolling Stones, Joe Tex, the Zombies and Nancy Sinatra … all within the first 30 minutes. I stopped keeping track after ELO came on a few minutes later, in a music-supervisor-doth-protest-too-much moment.)

Anyway, it’s here where Cruella’s young anti-hero (Emma Stone) has fallen into a life of petty crime, with a side hustle of trying to break into the local fashion industry, which is ruled by the Anna Wintour-ish Baroness (Emma Thompson). Along for the ride are Estella’s two best friends, fellow thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), the Baroness’s loyal assistant John the Valet (Mark Strong) who seems ported over from a Guy Ritchie flick, and vintage-fashion aficionado Artie (John McCrea), who is being touted as Disney’s first openly queer character even though there is absolutely nothing done or said onscreen to indicate such a whisper-quiet bit of lip service.

Gillespie and writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara seem to be going for a Devil Wears Prada meets Ocean’s 11 type vibe. But in their bid to both amuse themselves and satisfy their corporate minders, the tale turns into a pungent mush that gives off whiffs of everything from Phantom Thread to Death Becomes Her to, yes, Joker. It never completely works, although the cast is trying exceptionally hard.

If you stick with Cruella, you’ll be transported to a semi-fun, if eventually exhausting, lark set in London’s swinging 1970s.

Laurie Sparham/The Associated Press

Stone most of all. Even though the actress doesn’t quite nail down her accent, she completely embraces the icy rage driving her character. Best of all, she doesn’t ever once try to ape what Glenn Close did the last time Disney felt the need to live-action-fy Cruella de Vil (that’d be in 1996′s 101 Dalmatians, which I guess we all collectively decided to never mention again).

Speaking of Close: Gillespie and company completely missed an opportunity to hire the actress to play the Baroness. Given that Cruella is 100 per cent fan-service from the get-go, why not just run the extra casting mile to get Close in there for a meta-battle of villainess wits? Thompson is always enjoyable – even though there are a few moments when she seems genuinely bored and above the material, which, fair enough – but Disney was this close to truly breaking the social-media meme factor (and thus driving Disney+ subscriptions).

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Ultimately, the bloated (please direct me to the children who are able to sit still for 134 minutes), emotionally empty, style-over-substance Cruella is just a new way of skinning the same puppy.

Cruella is available May 28 on Disney+ with Premier Access, and in Canadian theatres, dependent on public health restrictions

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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