Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Are cartoon villains born or made?

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Craig Gillespie
Written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, story by Aline Brosh McKenna and Kelly Marcel & Steve Ziss, based on the novel One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
Produced by Andrew Gunn, Mark Platt, and Kristin Burr
USA/UK. 134 min. Rated PG-13
With: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Mark Strong
Released by Walt Disney Studios in theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on May 28, 2021

Disney’s animated 101 Dalmatians in 1961was among the first movies that inspired me to find and read the source book, as a budding critic. I just remember being struck how different they were. I certainly never expected that a PG-13 level movie would eventually come out of it – but please take the rating seriously, because this live-action prequel to the 1996 live-action re-make is not for kids. This villain origin story is Mean Girl vs. Mean Girl, and the nastiness is not only encouraged and played for laughs, but rewarded.

So don’t let the Prologue fool you, narrated archly by Cruella DeVil looking back on her life. We see she was born as Estella with her congenital black-and-white coiffe. As a toddler and five-year-old she just seems like an aggressive tomboy, beating up the boys and bullies. By the time she’s 12 (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), her nice mother (Emily Beecham) takes her out of school before she’s expelled. (Take note that she does have one school friend, Anita.) But en route to a different school, they make a stop at Hellman Hall, where we first glimpse the costumed Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Then, in fine Disney tradition, another parent is quickly dispatched. With less drama than Bambi’s, but dalmatians are involved in slo-mo. Blaming herself, Cruella does sound sad when she intones: “I was an orphan. The only thing I could do was run. And I ran for a long time.”

Then don’t let the short, Dickensian section fool you either, as she meets up with 12-year-old Jasper and Horace (the nice, pre-teen versions of the bumbling henchmen originally played by Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams). You can start humming the “on the rooftops of London” line from Mary Poppins’s “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee”, but no Sherman Brothers tunes here. It’s now the 1970s and the songs are all pointedly selected classic rock-n-roll (thanks to music supervisor Susan Jacobs). They invite Estella to join their “gang”, in the Artful Dodger sense of the word: “We could use a girl to look innocent and be a distraction.”

Only when Estella grows up ten years later into Emma Stone does the heart of the movie begin, as she is determined to be a fashion designer. First designing outfits for their criminal escapades, she recalls in the voice-over: “I got to do what I loved and reaped the rewards. But I thought I was meant for more.” The next section heavily draws on story writer Aline Brosh McKenna’s The Devil Wears Prada (2006), as Jasper (now played by Joel Fry; Horace is now played by Paul Walter Hauser) helps Estella get a job at a department store, which leads her into the atelier of The Baroness. Thompson plays up an exaggerated Miranda Priestly, in stiff outfits that look even more uncomfortable to wear than couture would on the runway in her fashion house.

Glenn Close’s Cruella in the original live-action version warned would-be designer Joely Richardson: “We lose more women to marriage than war, famine, and disease.” The Baroness expands on this considerably when she first sees Estella as a protégé: “You can’t care about anyone else. Everyone else is an obstacle. You care what an obstacle wants or feels, you’re dead. If I cared about anyone or thing, I might have died like so many brilliant women with a drawer full of unseen genius and a heart full of sad bitterness. You have the talent for your own label. Whether you have the killer instinct is the big question.” Like the earlier warning, this film takes her perception quite literally.

Because the movie does get fun as Estella gets down to vengeance, even more than Stone did in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018). She endeavors to not only compete with The Baroness, but ruin her business – as a mysterious figure called “Cruella”. (Think “Down With the Establishment!”) Where The Baroness is pop, Cruella taunts to the tunes of the Clash’s “Do I Stay or Do I Go” and Blondie’s “One Way or Another”. And a cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” because didn’t this originally have to do with dalmatians? Even more than her outlandish designs, Cruella cannily knows that being a success in this biz is all about PR (think “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago), as headlines, like “Who is Cruella?” and “Baroness In A Slump”, swirl about them. It helps that her only school friend Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is now a photo-journalist, with a large Afro. (Think of the Met Gala on steroids.)

As cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis’s camera dizzyingly whips around, the real stars of the film completely take over: the teams of production designer Fiona Crumbie, set decorator Alice Felton, costume designer Jenny Beavan, and hair and makeup designer Nadia Stacey. Disney publicists usefully provide “Fun Facts”: the principal cast has 277 costume changes – Estella/Cruella alone has 47 and the Baroness 33; even Horace and Jasper have 30 each. And the number of wigs, shoes, flowers, candles, 3,500 meters of fabric, etc. for 40,000 props filling eight trucks a day throughout the shoot.

The film just goes on too long, as the two women get nastier and nastier, beyond the School of Cruel Comedy of the earlier permutations. Then The Truth Is Revealed, aided by Mark Strong as The Baroness’s valet. Estella muses about The Baroness: “We are very alike, I suppose.” Much to the regret of her two nice-guy partners-in-crime, she confesses to the memory of her mother “I’m not sweet Estella, try as I might”. A Cadillac gives her the idea to add “DeVil” to her persona, to the tune, naturally, of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

When I explained to my six-year-old grandson why I don’t think Cruella is appropriate for him, he thought it sounded a lot like Maleficient. But that was PG. I hope others realize this Cruella is even more villainous.

May 27, 2021

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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