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Is there a kinder ‘Cruella’? With varying degrees of success, a film reimagines the Dalmatian villain

Whether it's because to our insatiable desire for human wickedness or a film industry in desperate need of fresh ideas, it appears that practically every iconic villain now has their own feature-length narrative.

Whether it’s because to our insatiable desire for human wickedness or a film industry in desperate need of fresh ideas, it appears that practically every iconic villain now has their own feature-length narrative. The results have been a mixed but not uninteresting bag, allowing some outstanding actors to go over-the-top in a fun way: Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker, and Maleficent, a creative retelling of Sleeping Beauty, is one of the few films that really utilise Angelina Jolie’s otherworldly screen presence.

Cruella is the most recent example of this trend, and it’s a mixed but not uninteresting bag. It’s a Disney live-action film, like Maleficent, based on an earlier Disney animation hit – this time, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It’s set in 1970s London and aims to show us Cruella de Vil’s younger years, when she was a fascist fashionista who stole a litter of Dalmatian pups and attempted to transform them into a spotted fur coat.

The problem is that dog killers aren’t the most sympathetic characters, and this film really wants us to sympathise with them. Justin Chang, author

The problem is that dog killers aren’t the most sympathetic characters, and this film really wants us to sympathise with them. As a result, by the end of the film, Cruella does not appear to be nasty enough to conduct puppycide. She’s portrayed as a rebel, impatient, misunderstood, and unwilling to follow the rules of a world that dismisses her at every turn.

When we first encounter Cruella as a little girl named Estella, she is already causing havoc. Estella’s loving mother tries to keep her on the straight and narrow, but she is orphaned and left to fend for herself on the streets of London following a series of sad occurrences. Estella, now played by Emma Stone, is a seasoned thief who commits crimes with her friends Horace and Jasper a few years later. (Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry portray them.)

Estella has a keen sense of fashion, and with a little help from a vintage store owner, Artie (John McCrea), she creates wonderful disguises for herself and her criminal companions. Estella soon finds herself working as a designer for the Baroness, an arrogant queen of couture who owns London’s most premium fashion company.

Emma Thompson provides a diabolical wit performance as the Baroness – she’s part wicked stepmother, half Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Estella’s crazily competitive streak is sparked by the Baroness, who soon unleashes her pent-up alter persona, Cruella, as a kind of glam-punk fashion performance artist.

Cruella begins crashing the Baroness’ galas and parties in attention-grabbing costumes — the work of outstanding costume designer Jenny Beavan, in her largest presentation since Mad Max: Fury Road — in order to upstage her enemy while still protecting her hidden identity as Estella.

Onscreen, the Emma-vs.-Emma rivalry is as enticing as it must have been on paper. However, their conflict highlights a conceptual flaw in the film, as well as the current practise of recasting villains as sympathetic antiheroes. Thompson’s Baroness is monstrous in ways that even even Cruella de Vil can’t match. The Baroness turns out to be a terrific villain in a film about the rise of a great villain.

Despite this, Stone gives it her all in a challenging part that parallels her depiction as a humble young woman turned nasty schemer in The Favourite. Estella, who is carefully biding her time and calculating her next move, is far more interesting than Cruella, who is frequently overshadowed by her own clothes. Is Cruella supposed to come out as naive, insane, or honestly dishonest? The writing tries to suggest a convoluted blend of all three, but it mostly leaves you perplexed.

Craig Gillespie, who previously directed the darkly humorous Tonya Harding film I, Tonya, helmed Cruella. In Cruella, his filmmaking is all on the surface, yet it’s unquestionably enjoyable. The soaring, whooshing camerawork is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas era, and the rebellion-themed music is jam-packed with tunes from the Rolling Stones, Doors, Clash, Blondie, and more. Cruella is far too long and undisciplined at two hours and fourteen minutes, but it explodes with a nasty punk energy in its greatest moments. Even if the protagonist isn’t nearly as awful as the rest of the cast, it’s not a bad film.

HOST, SAM BRIGER:

It’s time for some FRESH AIR. Emma Stone plays Cruella de Vil, the legendary villain from “101 Dalmatians,” in the new Disney live-action film “Cruella.” Cruella, which also stars Emma Thompson, hits theatres today and will be available to stream on Disney+ starting today. Justin Chang, one of our film critics, has written this review.

BYLINE: JUSTIN CHANG Whether it’s because to our insatiable desire for human wickedness or a film industry in desperate need of fresh ideas, it appears that practically every iconic villain now has their own feature-length narrative. The results have been a mixed but not uninteresting bag, allowing some talented performers to go over the top in a fun way. Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker, and “Maleficent,” a creative retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” is one of the few films to successfully utilise Angelina Jolie’s otherworldly screen presence.

“Cruella,” the most recent example of this trend, is a mixed but not uninteresting bag. It’s a Disney live-action film, like “Maleficent,” that’s based on an earlier Disney animation classic – in this case, “101 Dalmatians.” It’s set in 1970s London and aims to show us Cruella de Vil’s younger years, when she was a fascist fashionista who stole a litter of Dalmatian pups and attempted to transform them into a spotted fur coat.

The problem is that dog killers aren’t the most sympathetic characters, and this film really wants us to sympathise with them. As a result, by the end of the film, Cruella does not appear to be nasty enough to conduct puppycide. She’s portrayed as a rebel, impatient, misunderstood, and unwilling to follow the rules of a world that dismisses her at every turn.

When we first encounter Cruella as a little girl named Estella, she is already causing havoc. Estella’s loving mother tries to keep her on the straight and narrow, but she is orphaned and left to fend for herself on the streets of London following a series of sad occurrences. Estella, now played by Emma Stone, is a seasoned thief who commits crimes with her friends Horace and Jasper a few years later. Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry portray them.

Estella has a fantastic sense of style. With a little help from a vintage store owner, Artie, played by John McCrea, she sews wonderful disguises for herself and her criminal associates. Estella soon finds herself working as a designer for the Baroness, an arrogant queen of couture who owns London’s most premium fashion company.

The legendary Emma Thompson performs a malicious wit performance as the Baroness. She’s a cross between Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada” and her evil stepmother. Estella’s crazily competitive streak is sparked by the Baroness, who soon unleashes her pent-up alter persona, Cruella, as a kind of glam-punk fashion performance artist.

Cruella begins crashing the Baroness’ galas and parties in attention-grabbing gowns, the work of outstanding costume designer Jenny Beavan in her largest presentation since “Mad Max: Fury Road,” in order to upstage her enemy while still protecting her hidden identity as Estella. The two adversaries meet for the first time in this scenario. Cruella is dressed in a tuxedo.

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE MOVIE “CRUELLA”)

EMMA THOMPSON: Who are you, Baroness Von Hellman? You have a strangely familiar appearance.

EMMA STONE: (As Cruella DeVille) I’m just stunning. Darling, I’m not sure about familiar.

THOMPSON: Is your hair real? (As Baroness Von Hellman)

STONE: (As Cruella) I like to make an impression, much like my ball.

THOMPSON: (As Baroness Von Hellman) Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, What was your name, by the way?

STONE: Cruella, Cruella, Cruella, Cruella, Cruella, Cruella, Cruella, Cruella, Cruella, Cru

THOMPSON: Oh, that’s fantastic. (As Baroness Von Hellman) And you created it?

STONE: (As Cruella) In fact, you did – the 1965 collection.

THOMPSON: (As Baroness Von Hellman) It’s no surprise that I adore it. It belongs to me.

CHANG: On screen, the Emma vs. Emma rivalry is as enticing as it must have been on paper. However, their conflict highlights a conceptual flaw in the film, as well as the current practise of recasting villains as sympathetic antiheroes. In ways that put this Cruella to shame, Emma Thompson’s Baroness is just nasty. The Baroness turns out to be the true great evil in a film about the birth of a great evil.

Nonetheless, Emma Stone gives it her all in a challenging performance that parallels her depiction as a humble young woman turned cruel schemer in “The Favourite.” Estella, who is carefully biding her time and calculating her next move, is far more interesting than Cruella, who is frequently overshadowed by her own clothes. Is Cruella supposed to come out as naive, insane, or honestly dishonest? The writing tries to convey a convoluted blend of all three, but it leaves the audience primarily perplexed.

Craig Gillespie, who previously directed the darkly humorous Tonya Harding film “I, Tonya,” helmed “Cruella.” In “Cruella,” his filmmaking is all on the surface, yet it’s clearly enjoyable. The soaring, whooshing camerawork is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” era, and the rebellion-themed soundtrack is jam-packed with songs by The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Clash, Blondie, and others from the 1960s and 1970s. At two hours and fourteen minutes, “Cruella” is far too long and undisciplined, but it bursts with a rough punk energy in its greatest moments. Even if the protagonist isn’t nearly as awful as the rest of the cast, it’s not a bad film.

BRIGER: The Los Angeles Times’ film reviewer is Justin Chang. He gave his thoughts on the new Disney picture “Cruella,” which hits theatres today and is now available to stream on Disney+.

(SOUNDBITE OF “LOVE TRAIN” BY THE O’JAYS)

BRIGER: I’m a bridger. The sound and soul of Philadelphia will be featured on the next FRESH AIR. We commemorate the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia International Records by listening to Terry’s discussion with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the two men who founded the label. Gamble and Huff penned and produced a slew of hit singles that helped define Philadelphia soul. I hope you will be able to join us.

Danny Miller is the executive producer of FRESH AIR. Audrey Bentham is our technical director and engineer. I’m Sam Briger, and I’m here for Terry Gross.

(SONG SOUNDBITE: “LOVE TRAIN”)

THE O’JAYS: (Singing) Our next destination will be England. Inform everyone in Russia… NPR provided the transcript; copyright is owned by NPR.

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