CRUELLA – Review by Martha K Baker

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A so-called “prequel,” Cruella quotes more than it originates. Set in the punking ’70s in London, the film traces the early days of the evil-doer known as Cruella back to the time that she was Estella. Even as a child, her white and black hair symbolized her good and evil sides.

Estella is clever. She makes a life for herself after losing her mother in which black and white Dalmatians were involved at a black and white ball — quoting the shades of host Truman Capote in 1966. Estella becomes quite the little grifter, executing thefts and picking pockets with her confederates, Horace and Jasper — Mutt and Jeff-y quotes there.

But Estella, the star, does not want to be a petty thief. She wants to design petticoats and gowns and to dress windows. One drunken evening, she transforms a window at London’s Liberty department store. The move is appreciated by the designer known as the Baroness — a quote of the devil-wearing-Prada. “Happy accidents can change whole directions of your life,” learns Estella, whom the Baroness calls “Grubby Girl.” Soon, new information induces rage, fueling the girl’s evil side. Thus, Cruella comes out of Estella’s closet.

Cruella extends the 1996 film, 101 Dalmatians, based on Dodie Smith’s novel of nearly the same name. Emma Stone plays Cruella in her titular film, and Emma Thompson plays the Baroness. Despite Thompson’s proven skill at comedy, she is hard to take as this horrible person, who believes that “People need a villain to believe in.” Wrong.

Director Craig Gillespie, who made a name for himself with Lars and the Real Girl in 2007, worked a script written by a committee headed by Dana Fox. The writers put more energy into a totemic necklace than into filling out a decent backstory. Gillespie’s film runs longer than 2 hours — without reward. Some of the musical score is original, but the rest depend on quotes from I Get Ideas to A Summer Place

Cruella might appeal to like-minded children, but, surely, Dodie Smith is rolling in her grave with about 101 Dalmatians. The film begins Friday, May 28 in theaters and will also be available on Disney+ with Premier Access for a one time additional fee.

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Martha K. Baker

Martha K. Baker

I first taught film at Lakeland College in Wisconsin in 1969 and became a professional film reviewer in 1976 in St. Louis, Mo. Through the years, I have reviewed films for the St. Louis Business Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Episcopal Life, and KWMU (NPR), among other outlets. I've reviewed at KDHX radio, my current outlet, for nearly 20 years.