It is cliché to say that playing the villain is vastly more interesting than the hero — which goes double for Disney stories in which, by and large, the princesses (especially in the older films) are usually just trapped in some manner, rendered helpless or sleep all day until they are rescued. But of all the Disney women of the dark side — the Ursulas, the Maleficents and, of course, the Evil Stepmothers — none has quite captured the imagination like the fantastically named Cruella de Vil.
So she’s been rewarded with a Joker-like origin story in Disney’s latest live-action reboot, “Cruella,” in theaters this weekend and on Disney+ Premier Access. It is, unfortunately, hobbled by Disney’s dogged need to be child-friendly — even though she is, of course, the only Disney villain with a rap sheet that includes “the attempted murder of a triple-digit number of puppies” — but the film’s cattiness means it accidentally stumbles into being more delightful than it has any right to be.
On the one hand, trying to make a puppy-killer into the protagonist of your film was bound to be a losing battle in the end for Disney, the leading purveyor of uplifting Happily Ever Afters for the under-12 set. But the good news here is that the film’s writers were fully aware of the ludicrousness of their assignment and leaned in to it as best they could. They renamed their precocious de-Vil-to-be “Estella” (“Cruella” is the name given to the inner witch she’s constantly trying to suppress), and, as for her feelings toward man’s best friend, well, in true Disney fashion, let’s just say dead mothers explain everything.
Welcome to The de Vil Wears Prada.
It’s ultimately a pretty good script that requires a level of camp among the actors to pull it off — though there are several moments in the child de Vil years where not everyone is up to the challenge. But then Estella blessedly grows up and turns into Emma Stone, and her friend Jasper Badun (Joel Fry) gets her a job where she catches the eye of Baroness von Hellman, played by Emma Thompson.
Welcome to The de Vil Wears Prada.
This is not a conflict where anyone is the heroine; one gets the sense that, if von Hellman believed puppy fur to be sufficiently in vogue, she’d have been scooping them up as well. But Stone and Thompson are an utter delight together on screen, fabulous when they’re sniping at other people and perfect when they save their best cut downs for each other.
The film’s cattiness means it accidentally stumbles into being more delightful than it has any right to be.
Unfortunately, the film, at nearly 2 1/2 hours, doesn’t always stay as buoyant as its visual and aural joys. The setting, for instance, feels more like the Disney idea of London than actual London — Mary Poppins could walk by saying “Spit spot” and no one would bat an eyelash — which is off-putting when there are so many other efforts at verisimilitude (the punk vs. haute couture runway and the period-appropriate soundtrack among them). The dog characters — of which there are a surprising amount, given that they don’t really play a role in the story — all have realistic CGI overlays to animate their faces, which can be quite disconcerting.
And, of course, everything has to garner a PG rating, which means Cruella’s cruelty never rises past the level of garden-variety pranks and the occasional football to the groin. (Regina George of “Mean Girls” would be unimpressed.)
All of this makes it more than a little difficult to squint and see the villain of Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” (either the 1961 or the 1996 live-action version with Glenn Close as de Vil). How does one go from bon mots, pranks and a groin kick to leading a London-wide puppy-napping ring and committing mass puppy murder? By the time the film ends, and our Ms. de Vil has moved into the famous Hell Hall, all the pieces are in place, but when it comes to making the leap to true villain, “Cruella” never quite has the nerve to commit.
This film occasionally flirts with being bad — there’s even a moment where it almost seems like Cruella might finally say a swear word out loud (spoiler alert: she doesn’t) — but in the end, everyone knows this film is a Disney product and decorum must be maintained.
Estella may not live up to the reputation of Cruella de Vil that preceded her, but if Emma Stone’s take doesn’t entertain you, nothing else will.