Let’s talk about Cruella.

How gutted do you think Disney were when they were going through their old catalogue to see what they could make into a live action film, saw 101 Dalmatians and realised they had already done it? Yes, before the days Disney remade at least three of their classic films a year, they actually did it with 101 Dalmatians back in the 1990s. This would become a beloved movie in its own right and mostly praised for Glenn Close putting in an incredibly mad turn as the villain Cruella. It was also a film I was obsessed with as a child, hence lots of embarrassing footage of me shouting ‘15 Puppies’ when I was around 4. So with me being more nostalgic than most for films about dalmatians, surely I’m the target audience for this prequel Cruella?

Before Cruella was trying to kidnap 101 dalmatians to make a fur coat out of them, she was Estella, a thief who is starting to make her way in the world of fashion. She then catches the eye of the Baroness, the leading fashion designer of the time, and works for her. However Estella’s ambition and mad ways start to consume her and she begins to plot her own rise to the top.

Let’s get the spotted elephant in the room out of the way first. If you have been on the internet this weekend, you’ll probably already know the backstory to Cruella. So moderate spoilers ahead as I say it here for those who don’t know. Cruella’s mum is killed by three dalmatians pushing her off a cliff. I’m not kidding, that actually happens. It’s ridiculous and laughable. It’s also pointless. Cruella never had a hatred of dalmatians, they just looked fabulous to her and killing them in the original was just a means to an end. This is a definite case of prequelitus where the writers feel like they desperately need to provide some sort of backstory for everything that happens in the next chronological film, even though that film has already provided enough explanation to keep us the audience happy. There are a couple more examples of prequelitus in the film but nothing too bad apart from this egregious example.

The reason I think so many who have seen this film have latched onto this moment is that it is defining of the movie’s issues and can even be used to explain its good parts. The issue is a matter of tone and the film not realising it is at its best when it’s being very silly. There’s a lot of overacting and not just from Emma Stone as Cruella, Glenn Close would certainly be proud, and Emma Thompson as the Baroness, someone who is very clearly enjoying being so deliciously evil. Then you have a lot of the bit part characters who show up for a scene or two. There’s a manager of a department store whose is so over the top with his classism and smugness that it feels like an Old Etonian is about to burst out of his chest alien style. And while it is over the top with this sort of thing, it is also very enjoyable. The performances are fun, the set pieces move by with a bit of zip and it’s generally just a lark. No it’s not fine theatre, but it is fun.

The problems come up when the film tries to be serious and make you feel those things called emotions. The issue with a prequel to a villain’s story, especially someone as evil in 101 Dalmatians as Cruella was, is that there’s only so much empathy you can give them. It’s easy to have fun with a villain in the making and enjoy where their dastardly ways come from, but it’s hard to really care. So when the film dials back its pretty awesome soundtrack, brings on the orchestrals and asks us to go ‘oh Cruella you poor thing’, it fails. Every time the film gets serious and asks to us actually care, the films grinds to a halt because there’s not much to care about. The characters in the film are fun and everyone gets a good line or two, but they aren’t exactly people you get attached too.

This then leads us back to that moment when the dalmatians kill Cruella’s mum. People who defend this moment say it’s done tongue-in-cheek and it’s part of the film being a little bit mad. But it’s not. The dalmatian murder, as in the murder done by dalmatians, is completely serious. Not only is it meant to be a big emotional moment but it ends up being a key part of the films structure. It keeps getting referred back to asthe rest of the film doesn’t work unless those dalmatians kill Cruella’s mum. You realise how crazy this all sounds right? I’ve written that sentence so much I’m starting to feel like I’m in fever dream where dalmatians are chewing my face off. But to make something so crazy, so laughable that internet decides to make it the meme of the day and then make it the emotional crux that the rest of the movie relies on is an amazingly awful decision from the makers of the movie. I almost respect it for how bad it is. In an era where everything is focus grouped to death which has the effect of making everything inoffensively mediocre, to have something so inexplicably insane come from a blockbuster is actually quite amazing. But if the emotional core of your film is based on that moment, it’s no wonder the fun, crazy parts succeed and the emotional parts fail.

Now before we end, Happy Pride month everyone! Did you know Disney is celebrating Pride month it’s very first openly gay character in this movie! Except, there’s some things to discuss with this. 1. No it bloody isn’t your first openly gay character. You’ve done this at least six other times with Beauty and the Beast and Onward in recent memory. 2. You’re trying to take plaudits for something you don’t deserve plaudits for. The character in question is Artie and he is gay in a way you can easily cut for the markets that are still stuck in the dark ages. He doesn’t state he’s gay other than in a coded way and as far as I saw he didn’t show any attraction to any other men. This shouldn’t be a sleight against Artie or the actor playing him as he is one of the most fun aspects of the film. It just irritates me that Disney are trying to steal some progressive points. Also by the way, if this was truly your first openly gay character ever, it’s 2021. If it was the case, you should be sheepishly admitting it and apologising for taking so long.

Cruella is fun. It does have it’s tonal problems but that doesn’t stop it from being a good time for the most part. The pace is quick and aided by a fantastic soundtrack, if there’s a Spotify playlist please hook me up, and the fun the actors are having by playing their parts to the max does translate onto the screen. This isn’t perfect by any means but I would rather Disney do something a little different with these reboots and remakes of old classics than just do the shot for shot style movies we have seen with The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Even if it does mean we find out that Sebastian the crab killed Ursula’s mother in The Little Mermaid remake.

Former Head of Movies for Screen Critics. Film Reviews now hosted on Medium.