CRUELLA, or ‘Death by Exhumation’. The 199 pages of Dodie Smith’s 1956 children’s book “The Hundred and One Dalmatians” begat Walt Disney’s beloved beloved 1961 animated smash. One Hundred and One Dalmations was reissued four times before being remade as a live action feature in 1996. Replicated boxoffice success spawned 102 Dalmations four years later. Apart from Glenn Close having a field day as flamboyant villainess ‘Cruella de Vil’, the otherwise needless updates merely made Walt’s voracious inheritor’s richer, and made the original look even better. Dogs will play fetch until they froth from exhaustion if their owners are clueless enough to put their own amusement ahead of their pets welfare. Seizing the money bone for a further autopsy on the cartoon bad girl, 2021’s plague-plagued litter gave Cruella her very own movie (did this piss off ‘Maleficent’?), with Emma Stone taking over from Close, both of them sharing credits as Executive Producers. Seven years gestating in the script pen, with Stone cast back in 2016, costing between $100-200,000,000, it faced down Covid by barking in cinemas and on cable access simultaneously. Theatrically (masks on patrons instead of muzzles on pooches) it grossed $233,274,812 worldwide from those curious enough to brave a pandemic for a Disney fix. A follow-up is threatened. As ever, Emma’s a treat, but in the main this prequel about a bitch is a shaggy dog.
After her mother is killed at a party by a pack of Dalmatians (some way to start a movie for kids!), unruly child Estella grows into a thief (Stone) during the mod-influenced 1970s, pulling ripoffs with two pals (played by Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry) and honing her talent for fashion. Her gift for style catches the eye of the uber-nasty ‘Baroness von Hellman’ (Emma Thompson), doyen of a fashion house and a big wheel designer of haute couture. Is there ever a nice fashion designer in movies? It’s dueling Emma’s as Estella, masquerading as ‘Cruella’, undercuts the queen bee-yatch and uncovers the real story behind her mother’s demise.
Like a book with a nice cover, a catchy forward, a neat epilog— with no story in between, this gimmick is little more than a concept, all dressed up with nowhere to go. The limp screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara sets up jokes without punchlines, leaving prime comic talent like Hauser adrift, and the bustle behind the snark makes noise but no impression. No matter that both Emma’s are consummate pros who try their best to goad life into little more than a whim: Waltish charm is absent, there’s no character to care about.
Craig Gillespie directed. He did a wonderful job on another story about an angry, troubled young woman with identity and reward issues, I,Tonya, deftly grasping the tragi-comic reality of real but surreal characters. But here, trying to breathe hustle, humor and humanity into cartoon figments, his touch is buried beneath concept conceit, production excess and that leaden screenplay. Drag this hound back to the pound.
With Kirby Howell-Babtiste, Mark Strong (wasted), John McCrea and Emily Beecham. At 134 minutes, overlong on top of empty.