There is a song played at the end of Cruella that has always bothered me. It is called “Sympathy for the Devil,” and it is performed by The Rolling Stones. Given the whole 1970s vibe of the film, it fits thematically. For me, it is emblematic of my distaste for the movie overall. Even before I began practicing my Faith in earnest, I always wondered why people would enjoy a tune about the embodiment of evil. The lyrics speak to the terrible acts that the devil has enticed people into doing throughout history, including when Pontius Pilate washed his hands of Jesus, allowing Our Savior to be Crucified. As today’s motion picture comes to an end, our “heroine” adopts the title moniker permanently, adds “de Vil” (note the spelling), and renames her palatial estate “Hell Place.” And this is the person we were meant to be rooting for during the last two hours plus of our lives?
You can make the argument that Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) did not start off as evil in Cruella, though her birth is not without mystery and pain. As she goes on to say later, she was born “bad,” as if that were truly a thing. At any rate, she has a cruel streak in her that leads to all kinds of mischief. She also has to face a bit of bullying due to her binary, black and white hair, and general desire to stand out rather than fit in with the rest of her peers. Still, she gives as good as she gets, so much so that the headmaster (not principal as this is England, after all) gives her so many demerits that her mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), is called in and Estella is expelled. Seeing no other alternative, Catherine decides to pack up her and Estella and move to the big city of London. On the way, though, she decides to stop at a rich estate where she hopes to attain financial assistance. Though Estella is told to wait in the car, she sneaks out anyway and furtively slips into a fancy ball taking place. She does not go unnoticed for long as her little dog begins causing a raucous and soon things devolve into chaos. While this is happening, Catherine is with the lady of the house outside by a tall precipice. When this faceless woman calls her attack dalmatians (which is hard for me to get my head around), they leap at Catherine and push her off the edge of the cliff, killing her. Estella witnesses this and blames herself because the dogs were originally chasing her. She manages to escape, though, and makes her way to London. Arriving at the fountain in Regent’s Park, a spot where she dreamed of having tea with her mother, Estella befriends to young petty criminals working this area, Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald). Having no one else to turn to, Jasper and Horace take her in and together they begin a life of small-time thefts and other cons. Fast forward ten years and they are still working at it. One of the talents that Estella (Emma Stone) brings to their group is a knack for creating the costuming they need to blend in to any situation where they are about to steal something. Fashion is a passion of hers, and together Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) get her a job at the posh Liberty Department store. They see it as an opportunity for her to hone her sewing skills and make something of herself other than a thief. Yet, her first position with the company is as a cleaning lady. After one day of disinfecting toilets, taking out the trash, and dealing with a ridiculous boss, she takes it upon herself (fueled by alcohol) to liven up one of the store’s window displays, and passes out in it. She is found the next morning by her boss, but it also happens to be when one of Liberty’s main apparel suppliers, the Baroness (Emma Thompson), shows up at the store. Seeing the talent, the Baroness offers Estella a job on the spot. As Estella grows closer to the Baroness, owing to the younger woman’s keen fashion sense that matches well with that of her new employer’s, Estella learns a terrible secret. The Baroness is wearing a necklace that had belonged to her mother, that she had been wearing the night she was killed, meaning the Baroness was the one actually responsible for Catherine’s death. From there, Estella switches into Cruella mode, a sort of alternate personality she had for herself when she was a child, in order to get revenge on the Baroness. At first, her sole goal is to steal back the necklace, though that does not go entirely to plan despite Jasper and Horace’s help. At the same time, she begins a fashion empire of her own to essentially troll the Baroness. However, the Baroness is not one to be trifled with, and she manages to capture Cruella, burn down her home, and have Jasper and Horace arrested as patsies for the arson. What saves her is the Baroness’s valet, John (Mark Strong), who not only gets her out of the blaze but reveals the secret of the necklace. It contains a key to a lockbox, which holds Estella’s true birth certificate and reveals the Baroness as her true mother. Still, Estella wants to get even with the Baroness. Hence, at the next gathering the Baroness holds at her estate, Estella gets all the guests to dress as Cruella, and then lures the Baroness out to the same spot where Catherine died. There, Estella confronts the Baroness with the truth. When she seems cornered, the Baroness asks for forgiveness and an embrace. Estella relents, but then the Baroness pushes Estella off the same rocky top as Catherine. The problem, though, is that the party’s guests and the police witness the attempted murder and have her arrested. Meanwhile, Estella parachutes safely below, and is now the master of the Baroness’s former holdings. Blah, blah, blah.
That was a long synopsis of Cruella because the film itself feels like it is one act too long. I have never seen 101 Dalmatians (1961), or any of its sequels or live-action reboots or whatever else goes along with it. Regardless, I get that Cruella is an origin story, as I would think most people would understand, so we kind of know already where this is going anyway. As I recounted the proceedings, I realized about halfway through the previous paragraph that I had barely scratched the surface of what happens. Look, I love Emma Stone, and her performance is a good one. It is a tricky role because she has to play two people. At least that is how she is presented, anyway. The bulk of the story focuses on the relationship between her and the Baroness. Neither of them are likable people. You can make the argument that much of Estella’s character is informed by her circumstances. My heart goes out to her for seeing her mother die at such a young age. I cannot condone the path of revenge she sets out on against the Baroness. You also might say that the Baroness is an awful person who has it coming. Perhaps. The reason I am down on this film despite the quality filmmaking involved is because there is no protagonist. Estella is not a sympathetic character. You can have sympathy for her, but aside from a few brief tender moments, she treats everyone around her like dirt. This is, of course, without mentioning her criminal behavior. Her actions present a cinematic problem. The Baroness has to be so despicable as to be one dimensional in order for the film to work. At one point, she refers to all people as obstacles. This is a huge red flag for this reviewer. Hence, I was eager to see the plot wrapped up. Nope. There is a red herring or two, a couple of thwarted plots, and over two hours of a film that winds its way to an inevitable conclusion. They could have combined Cruella’s big, upstaging fashion show with the final scenes at the estate and had the same, much tighter movie.
Reason number 7,376 revealing how old fashioned I am, but I need a protagonist, and I did not see a true one in Cruella. I am pretty over anti-heroes. Then again, this is why I am a film critic and not a movie maker. I would probably inject way too much of my Catholic ideals into my films for them to be in any way popular. And yet, I truly believe more high-minded films with principles that relate more to what Christianity is all about are the ones that are most memorable. Read my review of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) to get a fuller treatise on this subject. In short, though, we are not called to vengeance. We are called to love. We may see some injustice happen that goes unpunished in the moment, or for years, and bristle at the apparent unfairness. We want to see people get their comeuppance, and it is hard to resist the urge to deliver it ourselves if given the chance. I promise you, God sees and knows. Assuming such deviant behavior is not repented upon, it will receive its just returns. With this film, we are instead celebrating somebody who we are made to believe is justified in being “bad.” No, thank you.
I do not recommend Cruella, but I have a feeling that saying so will be like shouting into a storm. There are worse movies out there, but it is sometimes the ones that are unintentionally bad that can do the most damage. The film spends a lot of time building sympathy for a character that, if she were real, would have none for you. She barely has any for people with whom she had spent her entire life. I find that sad.