Near the end of Cruella, after lots of jumbled, meant-to-be-amusing folderol, Emma Stone in the title role pulls the loose plot strands together in a brief but striking monologue addressed to a dead mentor:
So this is a confusing day. My nemesis is my real mother. And she killed my other mother. I guess you were always scared, weren’t you, that I’d be a psycho like my real mother, huh? “Love me into shape,” I suppose, was the plan. But the thing is, I’m not sweet Estella, try as I might. I never was. I’m Cruella! Born brilliant, born bad and a little bit mad.
This confession of moral ambivalence saves the actress from her usual unlikable strident attitude. Confused between anger and self-pity, she taps into something palpable. It is the best performance of her career. Then the movie goes back to the mess of unresolved ideas typical of how the Disney corporation rehashes past hits: This time the 1961 animated feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians is rebooted into a live-action hybrid, imitating Harry Potter and Oliver Twist in hopes of capturing the family-movie audience.
But that marketing concept doesn’t distract from Hollywood’s deleterious intention; Stone and her filmmaker cohorts can barely disguise it. Cruella showcases Hollywood’s current psychopathology. It gives the 1961 cartoon villain a backstory by rummaging through bits of pop-culture history to mark women’s-movement and fashion-industry advances. “I want to be a fashion designer, not a thief,” teenage Estella tells her ragamuffin, pickpocket pals Horace (the great Paul Walter Hauser, unforgettable in Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell) and Jasper (Joel Fry). Her subversive nature is intended to show independent will.
Director Craig Gillespie and a team of faux-feminist screenwriters that include Tony McNamara (The Favourite) and Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) present Estella and her alter ego Cruella de Vil as a standard-bearer. They use the unwanted infant freak with two-toned hair — her white/black cartoon motif illustrates good/bad caricature — and trivialize the schizophrenia that Prince relayed so wittily and dangerously as The Joker in his Batdance music video, from 1989. Cruella ransacks pop-culture rebellion from Sixties Carnaby Street to Seventies punk (minus political resonance) as Estella vies with an aging couturier, The Baroness (Emma Thompson). This careless, anachronistic mash-up misrepresents the sexual revolution and eventually becomes #MeToo retribution. “Must dash,” Cruella concludes her monologue. “Much to avenge, revenge, and destroy!”
The perverse reinvention seen in Cruella recalls pundit Tammy Bruce’s insight on #MeToo panic: “The feminist movement is having a nervous breakdown.” This disorder is not just a Hillary Clinton–driven post-2016-election freakout but part of the cultural shift that takes a villain and tries to partially rehabilitate if not totally justify the character. Disney’s moral revisionism follows Broadway’s Wicked, a modification of The Wizard of Oz that rationalizes Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, as queer. And just as the Harry Potter franchise justifies occultism as an alternative to Christianity, Disney similarly celebrated Angelina Jolie’s Sleeping Beauty villainess Maleficent (in two films so far). To wit: Cruella instructs Millennials that their own psychosis is excusable, admirable, and fun.
“It wasn’t her I was challenging, it was the world,” young Estella first admits. Later, The Baroness clarifies, “You’re here because you’re a brilliant designer and a wicked genius.” This is Hollywood explaining its immorality to itself. Cruella’s resemblance to both The Favourite and Phantom Thread (the two most twisted recent feminist fantasies) proves the industry’s decadence. Frankly, so does the unappealing, unchic, drag-queen presentations by the wildly costumed Stone and Thompson. Like the film’s incessant, tiresome pop-music cues (from The Clash and Nina Simone to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”), there’s no real style, just anti-style. Director Gillespie’s random visual effects (matching tabloid newspaper fonts to Cruella’s celebrity pranks) miss the excitement of luxe and filthy lucre. When con-man Horace says of Cruella’s luxury limousine that “it’s spelled devil, but it’s pronounced ‘deVille,’” he over-explains Disney’s obvious joke.
Cruella is not the innocuous entertainment it pretends to be. Through the notion that Cruella’s evil scheming is cute — or that Stone’s monologue is sympathetic — the Disney Company merely teaches girls to be cruel.