Reports suggest Disney had long been toying with the idea of a Cruella de Vil origin story, but the process of greenlighting one may well have been accelerated by the one-two success of Warner Bros.' Joker and Birds of Prey. The movie we've ended up with, Craig Gillespie's Cruella, is what happens when one vast entertainment conglomerate looks across at another and says "I'll have what she's having". The project entails a fundamental rethink of the character. A figure who was irredeemably villainous in 1961's 101 Dalmatians (and the live-action remake that followed at the turn of the millennium) is here repositioned and embraced - in a most 21st century way - as an example of wronged girl power. Born Estella (presumably after Dickens), she's expelled from a British public school system that doesn't understand her scrappy creative urges, witnesses the woman who raised her being hounded to her death by a pack of spotty dogs, and is then betrayed by London high society, in the form of Emma Thompson's haughty fashion doyenne The Baroness. This being Disney, it's mostly a matter of parenting: orphaned from an early age, Estella (later Cruella, and played by Emma Stone) never 'ad anybody to teach 'er any better, so it's little wonder she turns out as she does. Yet this Cruella's identity is shaped as much by her desire to get into the fashion industry, seized upon as both a site of wide-eyed wonder (damn, those frocks!) and of multiple crimes against the fairer sex. In a retailoring of the Superman legend, Stone's Cruella works two shifts: bespectacled designer-in-training by day, witnessing the Baroness's abuses firsthand, and arch-villainess by night, plotting her vengeance on all those who've crossed her. In its essence, it's an A-list makeover show, one that commits copious resources to transforming an angular animation - little more than a snarl with elbows, in my memory - into a figure so intrinsically fabulous she might hold the modern multiplex crowd's attention for two-and-a-quarter hours.
This possibly explains why Cruella feels like an extended montage sequence for much of its duration. More soundtrack clearance has gone on here than your ears will notice in any other of this year's releases, scene after scene spilling forth something or other from its grab-bag of pop picks: ELO, Tina Turner covers, The Stooges, Ken Dodd, every choice affirming the film's commitment to being all things to all men. That feeling of montage - of a film hastening to get everybody from A to B - only redoubles whenever Gillespie's camera begins to rove at pace through these sets, as in the early setpiece that starts on the shop floor at Liberty's, site of Cruella's first break, and promptly winds its way (with digital assistance) through the store's backchannels to arrive at its punchline: our anti-heroine on hands and knees, scrubbing the employee toilet floor. These sequences serve in part to highlight the studio's typically high standards of craft: production designer Fiona Crombie gives that camera detailed, busy places to go, be that a flagship West End store, a workable recreation of 1970s Soho (cleaned up for 12A-level consumption, but still appreciably hungover from the 1960s) or the Baroness's byzantine workshop, with its inbuilt, split-level hierarchies. We might even take a quiet pride in how much of this is British craft, from the work of costume designer Jenny Beavan, handed a blank cheque and a creative field day (a highlight of this collection: the rags sewn into skirts that unfurl into a vast train as Cruella flees the scene of one punking on the back of a dustcart), to the contributions of those presumably cheap but characterful comedians (Jamie Demetriou, Kayvan Novak, Joel Fry) who've been drafted in to bolster the supporting cast.
If it looks and sounds the part, dramatically Cruella never really gets much beyond whelming, the result of a scratchily anonymous screenplay, equal parts fan fiction and restructuring, which always feels like the product of multiple authors and rewrites, and could probably have stood a few more. (Aline Brosh McKenna, Steve Zissis and Tony McNamara are among the illustrious scribes with onscreen credits.) Everyone's been tasked with finding things for a young Cruella to do with herself, and tossing all these suggestions into a hat means that the film frequently scoots past its own better ideas (such as a heist on the Baroness's workshop, which might have been the whole movie) and actually starts to deviate from the original 1960s conception of this character. (As has been noted elsewhere, Stone's Cruella doesn't display any particular animus towards dalmatians, even when she's obliged to cohabit with a trio of them; it's their owners that get under her skin.) It gets stodgy towards the end as a result, but the film's small achievement, given how much there is of it, is that it doesn't ever quite clot: Gillespie moves Cruella through this scene as briskly as his camera team negotiate the corridors of Liberty's. As his 2017 breakout hit I, Tonya suggested, he's a filmmaker with a natural empathy for wronged women, and a light pop sensibility that's been missing since Mark Waters dropped off the studio radar. (I saw Cruella the day after I watched Gillespie's pilot for the new AppleTV+ show Physical, and I can make this minor claim for him: no-one has ever made better use of A Flock of Seagulls' "Space Age Love Song".) He approaches this assignment as the good-natured pantomime it is, never labouring for significance (as a try-hard like Joker did), instead clearing time and space on those sets for the two Emmas to vamp off, and - most cherishably - for Paul Walter Hauser to channel Bob Hoskins as one of the goons who take Cruella under their wing. Of course it's inessential, as 90-95% of all American movies are these days, but it's spirited, which is the very least these things should be.
Cruella is now playing in cinemas nationwide, and available to rent via Disney+.