Plodding first act aside, Cruella’s campy absurdity makes for a pretty fun movie

In cinemas now, and streaming on Disney+ from May 28, Cruella traces the evolution of 101 Dalmatians’ villainous Cruella de Vil. The script doesn’t let Emma Stone be anywhere near as wild and crazy as she wants to be, but the whole film comes to life with the arrival of a gleefully evil Emma Thompson, writes Amelia Berry.

Cruella is a completely preposterous movie. That much should probably be expected from a prequel to beloved Disney classic 101 Dalmatians. Any film trading on moments like “so THAT’S why she hates Dalmatians”, “so THAT’S why her hair looks like that”, is bound to be a little ridiculous. Cruella, however, is nowhere near content being only a little ridiculous, and instead leans hard into full absurdity, with a plot that feels ripped from a particularly depraved Victorian melodrama.

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The film starts off badly. The set-up drags, plodding through Estella/Cruella’s birth and school life. An over-reliance on iconic mid-60’s needle drops makes everything feel like a series of movie trailers, robbing even the more dramatic scenes of any real power or tension. We’re told several times that Emma Stone’s Estella is a genius, but she isn’t given much character beyond being a kind of Oliver Twist-type with an inexplicably posh accent and an interest in frocks.

Then, Emma Thompson arrives and the whole film comes to life. Her evil fashion maven, The Baroness, feels like a real old-school Disney villain; glamorous, arch, and gleefully evil. The cinema I saw this in went from deathly silent to loud lengthy cackles the instant she arrived on screen. The rest of the film is largely carried by her performance, along with some extremely charming turns from Kayvan Novak (TV’s What We Do in the Shadows) as Roger, and Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Jasper and Horace (so THAT’S how she met her henchmen!).

There’s a lot of weird stuff in this film. Alongside the absolutely bonkers plot, there’s a preponderance of distractingly CGI dogs, and, while the movie largely takes place in the mid-to-late 1970s, the soundtrack sticks fast to 60s classics, making for a woozy out-of-time feel. Cruella flouncing about in distinctly punk Vivienne Westwood chic just looks odd when it’s set to Time of the Season. Will this feel weird to a 12-year-old Disney fan? No, probably not. But for anybody used to what a film set in the 1970s conventionally sounds like, it feels naggingly off.

The real issue with it though is the moral calculus the film has to make setting up Cruella as the villain she is in 101 Dalmatians. If we want to give a sympathetic backstory to a woman famous for the attempted murder of more than one hundred innocent dogs, then whatever traumatic event set her on this path has got to be 101 dogs’ lives worth of awful. We also need to make Cruella sympathetic, while also setting her up to be capable of mass canine homicide. The result is a totally outrageous storyline but with a Cruella who’s just a bit of a grandiose dick with a thing for spots. She doesn’t even kill one dog! Emma Stone does her best to inject some fun into the character, but the script doesn’t let her be anywhere near as wild and crazy as Stone (or the audience) wants her to be.

Still, Emma Thompson and the rest of the supporting cast are so terrific, and the plot in the second half so fantastically stupid, that I couldn’t help but leave the cinema grinning. Maybe there was no chance that a 101 Dalmatians prequel would ever be a good movie. But, the first act aside, Cruella’s campy absurdity means it at least gets to be a pretty fun movie. And for sure better in a theatre, if you can manage it.