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Movie review: In "Cruella," Disney villain's origin story is a dizzying if uneven ride
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Movie review

Movie review: In "Cruella," Disney villain's origin story is a dizzying if uneven ride

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With “Cruella” neutering the issue of killing animals for fur, Emma Stone is limited to a spotty portrayal of evil.

There are some canonical Disney characters who simply demand further interrogation. The maniacally fur-obsessed fashionista Cruella De Vil, who tormented the young Darling family and their Dalmatian puppies in “101 Dalmatians,” and even has her own theme song, has had a grip on our imaginations since the animated feature in 1961. Glenn Close staked quite a claim in the role in the 1996 live-action film. Now Emma Stone dons the two-tone wig to try to explicate just why Cruella was so hungry for those puppy pelts.

Director Craig Gillespie managed to flip the cultural sentiment on the notorious Tonya Harding with his Oscar-nominated 2017 film “I, Tonya,” so he’s an ideal director to tackle “Cruella.” A dream team of screenwriters, including Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis, contributed to the script, but it’s not easy to solve a problem like “Cruella.”

The film is a humanizing origin story in the vein of “Joker,” but it’s aimed at a teen audience, and we can’t see her attempt to harm any dogs, but, that’s her whole thing.

Set in London, vaguely in the 1970s, Gillespie attempts to distract from any squidgy story moments with some furiously fast filmmaking. The film never, ever stops, the soundtrack churning through classic rock tunes from The Zombies to Nina Simone at an almost harried pace. The camera dives, swoops, crawls, scurries and cranes throughout the streets and buildings where the young street urchin Cruella, nee Estella (Stone), grows up pickpocketing with her best pals, Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry), who took her under their wing after her mother’s tragic death. Her journey to understanding this life-altering loss will be the driving force of Estella’s life, and what spurs her to embrace her wild alter ego, Cruella.

Escaping the grifter lifestyle, Estella snags her dream job as a design assistant for fashion impresario the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Their relationship is similar to Cruella and Anita in “101 Dalmatians,” and if you were wondering what they were going to do with that two hour-plus run time, the screenwriters have managed to stuff most of “Phantom Thread” into the second act.

While toiling for the Baroness, Estella takes on a Clark Kent lifestyle, moonlighting as the punky provocateur Cruella, riding around on a garbage truck in a ball gown, as a way to prank her boss. The police claim “vandalism”; the tabloids eat her up. But one can’t help but wonder if “fashion stunts” can make a true villain.

Cruella torments the Baroness by constantly upstaging her, but the truth is that Thompson snatches the film right out from under Stone. The second she steps on screen in winged eyeliner and form-fitting couture as the deliciously devilish Baroness, it’s game-set-match between the Emmas. Though sneeringly charming and perfectly delightful, Stone never stood a chance.

The tension between the kinda-naughty Cruella and the absurdly evil Baroness illustrates the quandary when it comes to making a film to explain one of Disney’s most iconic, and problematic, villains. Though they managed to pull it off with “Maleficent,” positioning her as a misunderstood eco-warrior, Cruella’s whole deal is killing animals for fur. With that element understandably neutered, Stone is tasked with the challenge of balancing Estella and Cruella, trying to make Estella sympathetic, but also celebrating who Cruella ultimately becomes. She’s never as unleashed as Thompson or even Close, who are allowed to be as bad as they want to be.

Despite the character’s limitations, Gillespie’s dizzyingly manic aesthetic makes for a head-rush of a ride, as we trip the light fantastic through a grungy glam-goth take on ’70s London. The effect lasts about as long as the film itself, evaporating almost instantly, but it is indeed a good time while it lasts.

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