[Screen It]


(2021) (Emma Stone, Emma Thompson) (PG-13)

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Dramedy: A young woman's troublemaker alter-ego resurfaces after she takes a job working for a demanding and demeaning fashion designer.

Having been orphaned at a young age when Dalmatians pushed her mother off a cliff, Estella (EMMA STONE) has spent the past decade living in London in an abandoned building with her fellow street thieves, Jasper (JOEL FRY) and Horace (PAUL WALTER HAUSER), who took her in long ago and taught her the tricks of their crime trade.

Aware of Estella's love of fashion, Jasper manages to land her a job at a swanky department store, with both unaware that it's a dead-end janitorial maid position. But after a drunken night of vandalizing the store's display window with her fashion ideas, renowned fashion designer The Baroness (EMMA THOMPSON) is impressed enough to offer her a job. Estella soon learns, however, that her new egotistical and self-serving boss is both demanding and demeaning, yet has a loyal staff including the likes of valet John (MARK STRONG).

Realizing she needs to make a name for herself -- and with her recently suppressed troublemaker alter-ego, Cruella, coming back to the forefront, Estella teams up with second-hand clothing shop owner Artie (JOHN McCREA) and former classmate turned fashion newspaper reporter Anita Darling (KIRBY HOWARD-BAPTISTE) to get her name and design sense out in the world for everyone to see. None of which sits well with The Baroness, resulting in an eventual showdown between the two.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

In the "old days," people generally rooted for the "good guy" to defeat the "bad guy" in whatever real or fictional realm in which both parties existed. For the most part, you actively rooted against such people, especially in the movies. But then Hollywood started making the antagonists more complex and magnetically fascinating despite their actions. Just think of Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, and Hans Gruber as examples of villains you couldn't take your eyes off and who drew you in.

So much so that many wondered what happened in those characters' pasts to mold them into the domineering figures we loved to hate. Comic books have long dabbled in origin stories for both their heroes and bad guys, but many studios have been reluctant to give villains an entire film to show what happened and showcase them as the central figure.

That's started to change, however, with "Joker" being a prime example and now "Cruella" follows suit. Yes, the villain from the "101 Dalmatians" stories now gets her own film where we see the backstory and formation of one of cinema's greatest female baddies.

A decade in the making and now finally being released after its Covid-based delay, the film is a reimagining of the character and a few supporting ones from the original "101 Dalmatians" book and subsequent movie adaptations. As directed by Craig Gillespie ("I, Tonya") from a script by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, the film begins in the 1960s and introduces us to young Estella who's quite a handful both for her mother and the students and faculty at the school she attends.

She ends up kicked out of that and after packing up their bags to head off to London for a new start, her mom needs to stop and visit someone. But the girl doesn't stay in the car as instructed and instead goes inside Hellman Hall -- where a swanky, high fashion event is taking place -- and ends up causing a commotion.

All of which leads to a small pack of dalmatians chasing her that eventually send dear ol' mum off a cliffside platform and to her death down in the rocks and sea below. With that continuing the long-running Disney trend of featuring traumatized kids, the now orphaned girl runs off and ends up in London in the company of two boys who teach her the ways of being a petty thief street urchin.

Flash forward a decade and the trio is still at it, although Estella (Emma Stone), Jasper (Joel Fry), and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) have refined their thieving ways. However, the girl still dreams of being a fashion designer. After Jasper pulls a fast one for her, she gets a job at a swanky department store, but only in the now apparent dead-end job of being the "keep your mouth shut" janitorial maid.

Having had enough of that, she grabs her boss' bottle of booze after hours and goes on a fashion-inspired and alcohol-fueled bender of showing her skills -- vandal style -- in the store's prominent front display window. All of which horrifies her immediate boss, but impresses none other than fashion diva The Baroness (Emma Thompson) who offers the young woman a job at her company.

With an original version of the script being written by Aline Brosh McKenna (who also penned "The Devil Wears Prada"), it's not really a surprise that Thompson's character comes off quite a bit like Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in that previous film. Demanding and egotistical, she won't admit she likes Estella's designs and takes credit for them for her fashion shows.

All of which drags Estella's titular, troublemaker alter-ego back to the forefront of her existence. That, and some revelations fuel the beginning of her transformation into the de Vil character we've long known.

The result is something of an odd offering for which I'm not entirely sure who the intended audience is. It's not really for younger kids who've enjoyed the "101 Dalmatians" offerings, but at the same time, it's a bit juvenile for the older and more hip "Devil Wears Prada" crowd.

And it's that identity struggle - perhaps symbolized by the anti-hero's even hair color split between black and white -- that prevents the film from truly finding its footing and taking off. It doesn't trip up the offering entirely, but it certainly has an effect on one's engagement with the story and characters (as does the far too long running time -- of 134 minutes -- for a film like this).

That said, the performances are generally good, the production and fashion designs are top-notch, and the flick contains a great soundtrack of old popular tunes, although they mostly dry up in the film's second half as the plot needs to progress through its apparently necessary but not entirely satisfactory or entertaining mechanisms.

In the end, I didn't care enough about the central character to love her or hate her, or love to hate her. Your view and opinion might (and probably will) vary one way or the other, but that fact for me means that "Cruella" doesn't score higher than a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 23, 2021 / Posted May 28, 2021

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