Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA/United Kingdom, 2021. Walt Disney Pictures, Marc Platt Productions, Gunn Films. Story by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis, Screenplay by Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, based on the novel One Hundred And One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith. Cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis. Produced by Kristin Burr, Andrew Gunn, Marc Platt. Music by Nicholas Britell. Production Design by Fiona Crombie. Costume Design by Jenny Beaven. Film Editing by Tatiana S. Riegel.
We could all afford to spend more time thinking about Katie Holmes, but why she crosses my mind at this particular time is the defining career moment she enjoyed in Batman Begins, when she tells the Caped Crusader that “it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” Disney, in wanting to capitalize on the fame of the characters in its vault without having to resort to simple remakes of the same stories over and over again, has once again turned a villain of a past film into a sympathetic excuse for an origin story, and while this film’s Cruella/Estella, who was once in pursuit of a truckload of dalmatians for reasons of pure couture lust, does not go bad because of the cruelty of a man the way Maleficent did, it is still not her actions that define who she is: the two-toned hair that we thought was the fabulous fashion statement of a cruelly glamorous icon is now a birthmark that denotes young Estella’s bifurcated personality, her mother (Emily Beecham) begging her to emphasize her good nature and ignore the “Cruella” who comes out when she is upset. Her future poor relationship with the world’s most beautiful collections of spots is not the anti-PETA fashion project of earlier iterations of her character, but begins because of an unfortunate incident involving a vicious trio of dalmatians and their part in a tragedy that leaves her alone in the world.
Growing up with two street urchins, Jasper and Horace (played with winsome good nature by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), Estella (Emma Stone) eventually lands her dream job at a beloved swinging sixties London department store, before being spotted by the city most successful couture designer, the “Baroness” (Emma Thompson at her most Diana Rigg) and hired to work in her house (and in truth, about a half hour of this bildogsroman could easily be cut without any harm to the experience). Having made a deal with a Prada-wearing devil (the script was co-written by that film’s screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna), Estella sets about to improve the Baroness’s output with her own incredibly talented designs before discovering that her boss is tied, quite dramatically, to her past. Now with this new knowledge in hand, her pain is unleashed and her mind is set solely on revenge, first by turning her Cruella persona into a Vivienne Westwood-esque fashion designer to rival the Baroness’s fame, then by focusing her energy solely on unseating the Baroness from her success for good.
Overlong as it is, the plot is solidly constructed and provides some damned good entertainment, benefiting from a committed performance by Stone in the lead (perhaps not mad enough, but certainly not lacking in effort) and juicy support from her fellow Emma, but the screenplay would work a lot better if it wasn’t actually connected with a known property; as a revenge heist it’s a thing of beauty, but as an origin story it’s hard to see how it sensibly ties to the Dodie Smith stories that we already know. What really irks, though, is the She Can’t Help it politics of Disney’s screen heroines, she is no more feminist a role model than a sleeping princess if she’s always the result of her circumstances, her bad choices are always forced upon her and she still cares about making sure the right people like her. Of course, Thompson’s character is not quite as concerned and her villainy never takes a break (we don’t get Miranda Priestley’s bathrobe scene, for example), but I’m sure we’ll get an origin story of her terrible childhood and tough time in school before this fetish for victimhood wanes in popularity.
Throw in the ages-old habit of continuing to insist that being a bad mother is the worst crime that a woman could ever commit and it’s honestly amazing that the film takes place in the early seventies when its politics could easily place it a hundred years earlier. It’s actually a richly entertaining film and satisfies to the end, but one does continue to wonder when it will happen that mainstream films will allow female anti-heroes to be defined by, and reassure our insecurities with, more than just our collective pity.
Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Actress-Musical/Comedy (Emma Stone)