One of my favorite bits of box-office trivia is that, in inflation-adjusted dollars, 101 Dalmatians remains the second-highest-grossing animated film of all time, behind only Snow White, and among all movies on the domestic box-office chart it sits at No. 16. It’s still immensely charming today, as hearty and dependable as the Studebakers in which families of seven went off to see it.
Cruella, a prequel/spinoff/origin story that ends where the original movie began, takes a somewhat different tack. It’s a tacky tack, and to be more specific, it’s a TikTok tacky tack, devised by hacks. The picture is slick but dull, glitzy but witless, expensively boring. But it’s not just a bad movie — slowly paced, with flat dialogue, supporting characters as interesting as shrubbery, and Victorian plot contrivances. It’s bad in a way that signifies, just as Frozen 2 heralded a Wuhan Institute of Virology-style gain-of-function weaponization of full-spectrum wokeness disguised as a princess cartoon.
Starring Emma Stone, whose lack of acting chops grows more and more evident with each passing year, Cruella isn’t politically propagandistic, but rather it panders to and nurtures personality defects in its audience as shamelessly as if it went to a convention for the morbidly obese and started pitching Twinkies into the crowd. The movie has the structure of a girl-power clash between an imperious fashionista and her young apprentice — The de Vil Wears Prada — larded up with the excesses of the comic-book genre. Underneath that, it reinforces the tendencies of TikTok obsessed tween and teen girls who are already given to leveraging their self-pity while vamping it up in 15-second bursts of cuteness. The movie screams, “Let’s put on a b**chfest! Except, er . . . it was this other b**ch who made me who I am, plus I had, like, this really difficult London orphan childhood? Like Oliver Twist? Only worse because I’m really pretty?” Cruella actually recites the line (in the first five minutes!) “I am woman, hear me roar.” Whoever came up with that idea should have had a baked potato thrown at her in the script meeting.
I’ve got 99 problems with this movie, not counting the two b**ches in it, who bring the total up to 101. The new Cruella is really Stella, a lonely and abused child turned misunderstood genius who loves animals. Her psychosis is just a stage act that exemplifies how empowered she is, and anyway, she has every right to hate Dalmatians since three of them attacked someone dear to her (in one of several stupid and forced plot contrivances). The real villain (apart from the wicked spotty dogs who act less like Dalmatians than Dobermans) is Cruella’s Anna Wintour-like boss, the Baroness, head of a fashion line who is played with a massive thud by Emma Thompson. The way Cruella tries to reconcile the conflicting messages of “When you’re bad, own it” and “My alleged badness is just an indication that my enemies are everywhere and have gaslighted everyone” typifies its adolescent incoherence.
The Baroness is supposed to be campy fun, but since none of the film’s writers managed to come up with any zingers for her (the atrocious screenplay is credited to Dana Fox and Tony McNamara), she seems smaller than life; instead of being the villain you love to hate, she’s just a nasty boss. In repayment for her sins, she suffers the indignity of getting upstaged at her fashion shows by her mousy assistant Stella in disguise. In payback for the Baroness’s various sins, Stella builds a Vivienne Westwood-meets-Joker alter ego in Cruella, who isn’t even cruel. It’s just a punk name, not a reflection of her personality. (See also Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer.) Like the beneficent Maleficent, Cruella is just swell-a.
Cruella, whose true identity is a big juicy secret until the ruse peters out in one of many dramatic opportunities blown by director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), doesn’t even kill dogs this time around, not even when one of them eats a key piece of jewelry. She spends half the movie waiting for a Dalmatian to poop it out, and I really miss the Jerry Bruckheimer era now that we’ve gotten to a place where “waiting for a dog to relieve his bowels” is the kind of story beat writers of summer blockbusters think they can turn in without getting fired. Also, who is paying for Cruella’s fabulous guerilla fashion shows? One of them looks like it cost approximately as much as the opening ceremony of the London Olympics to stage. An entry-level fashion designer who lives in a squat somehow has the budget to put on shows that put her boss’s offerings to shame, and Cruella’s overnight fame reinforces the impression among young TikTokers that life’s greatest imperative is to grab everyone’s attention by vamping it up. Bizarrely enough, though, the movie misapprehends its intended audience’s attention span, lumbering on for two-and-a-quarter hours (including a mid-credits sequence) in which there are so many slow stretches and pre-announced plot twists that the movie practically invites its watchers to get out their phones and see if anything has gone viral lately.
Loud, long, dumb, humorless, and charmless, built around a heroine we don’t love and a villain we don’t hate, Cruella not only lacks everything that made 101 Dalmatians wonderful, it does everything the opposite way. Someday, under the definition of decadence, dictionaries will cite the slide from 101 Dalmatians to Cruella as example A.