Villains are en vogue in popular media. Suicide Squad has had not one, not two, but three movies dedicated to its team of misfits, and 2019’s Joker painted a scathing portrait of Batman’s iconic nemesis. Miss Cruella de Vil of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, is the latest villain to receive the live–action remake treatment. Directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Emma Stone in the title role, the film Cruella presents viewers with a nearly two–and–a–half–hour backstory of de Vil’s path to treachery.
We see her transform from a rebellious child of a single mother to a petty yet proficient thief, who eventually becomes a punk upstart in a prestigious design firm. And this metamorphosis is all before she comes to embody the dog–obsessed matriarch she is infamous for. The whole affair is very campy and very queer, frivolous with a sense of insurgent flair. Despite being billed as a kids’ movie (with a PG–13 rating), Cruella leaves most of the fun for the adults in the audience. Action is thin, and when it does crop up, it's in the form of high fashion reveals, which may dazzle the eye but leaves the heart craving more. Not to mention the grand total of five Dalmatians in the film. The biggest surprise isn’t an outrageously gorgeous dress, although there are plenty of those to go around, but instead is Cruella’s real name: Estella Miller. Stone plays a sort of Jekyll and Hyde. She alternates between the demure but tenacious wine–red–haired Estella and the ruthless Cruella, who smites just as much as she bedazzles in her black–and–white curls.
Although the film may be lacking in activity, Cruella makes up for it with character and style, set to a thrilling soundtrack of '70s punk rock and an original song by Florence + The Machine. Armed with three sidekicks (five, if you count the two stray dogs) and a head full of ambition, Estella infiltrates the Baroness’ (Emma Thompson) fashion house and upstages her mentor under the guise of her alter–ego, Cruella, as an act of personal revenge. Both women play their respective roles spectacularly, but the real stars of the show are the dresses themselves. Whether she’s arriving unannounced at a Gala in a garbage truck or setting her overcoat aflame, Cruella manages to make a spectacle of herself and beats the Baroness at her own game. Yet as she rises to fame, flickering between Estella and Cruella until it seems Cruella has taken over, she throws her friends Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) under the bus.
Cruella's in–house designer guru Artie (John McCrea) is notable as he is the first openly gay character in a Disney movie, but Disney has been making this claim since LeFou kissed Gaston in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast remake. Artie is queer–coded, based on his femme mannerisms, flamboyant style, and the tasteful, Bowie–esque lightning bolt on his left eye. However, there is not one mention of his sexuality in Cruella at all. I would take issue with him had I followed the promotion for the film, which touted Artie as an openly gay character, but the film makes up for this apparent queerbaiting with copious amounts of camp. Twelve–year–old Cruella (Tipper Seifer–Cleveland), with her black–and–white bangs, appears to have wandered right out of a Sia music video and into the movie.
If anything, the biggest disappointment of Cruella isn’t the ridiculous plot twist, nor the absence of action and Dalmations, not even the apparent queerbaiting. It’s the climax of the movie itself. While the closing scenes make sense for the storyline, mimicking the film’s beginning, there is a palpable lack of visual "bang!" in its closing moments. The meat of Cruella is in the shockingly gaudy presentations of Cruella’s dresses. And the final look, well, is something even the Baroness wouldn’t comment on. The film misses the mark by underemphasizing what makes Cruella an unforgettable villain. So much for cruelty.