Chalk it up to our eternal fascination with human evil or to a movie industry that's short on original ideas, but it seems like almost every classic villain nowadays is guaranteed their own feature-length backstory. The results have been a mixed but not uninteresting bag, and they've allowed some fine actors to go entertainingly over-the-top: Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for his psychic meltdown as the Joker, and Maleficent, a clever reframing of Sleeping Beauty, remains one of only a few movies that have put Angelina Jolie's otherworldly screen presence to effective use.
The latest example of this trend is Cruella, and it's, well, a mixed but not uninteresting bag. Like Maleficent, it's a Disney live-action movie inspired by an earlier Disney animated classic — in this case, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It's set in 1970s London, and it means to show us the youthful origins of Cruella de Vil, that fascist fashionista who kidnapped a litter of Dalmatian puppies and tried to turn them into a spotted fur coat.
The thing is, though, that dog killers aren't the most sympathetic protagonists, and this movie definitely wants us to sympathize. As a result, this Cruella doesn't really seem evil enough to commit puppycide by movie's end. She's presented as a rebel — impatient, perpetually misunderstood and unwilling to play by the rules of a world that casts her aside at every turn.
Cruella is already a mischief maker when we first meet her as a young girl named Estella. Her loving mother tries to put her on the straight and narrow, but after a series of tragic events, Estella is orphaned and left to fend for herself on the streets of London. A few years later, Estella, now played by Emma Stone, is a seasoned grifter committing robberies with her buddies Horace and Jasper. (They're played by Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry.)
Estella has an extraordinary eye for fashion; she sews amazing disguises for herself and her partners in crime, with a bit of inspiration from a vintage store owner, Artie, played by John McCrea. Before long, Estella lucks her way into a job as a designer for the Baroness, an imperious queen of couture who runs the most exclusive fashion label in London.
As the Baroness, the great Emma Thompson gives a performance of diabolical wit — she's half wicked stepmother, half Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. The Baroness brings out a madly competitive streak in Estella, who soon unleashes her pent-up alter ego, Cruella, as a kind of glam-punk performance artist of the fashion world.
Determined to upstage her nemesis while still guarding her secret identity as Estella, Cruella begins crashing the Baroness' galas and parties in attention-grabbing gowns — the work of the brilliant costume designer Jenny Beavan, in her biggest showcase since Mad Max: Fury Road.
The Emma-vs.-Emma matchup is as irresistible onscreen as it must have been on paper. But their rivalry also points out a conceptual weakness in the movie, and perhaps in the ongoing trend of trying to recast villains as sympathetic antiheroes. Thompson's Baroness is flat-out monstrous in ways that put this Cruella to shame. In a movie that's supposed to be about the rise of a great villain, the Baroness turns out to be the actual great villain.
Nonetheless, Stone gives it her all in a tricky role with echoes of the lowly young woman turned ruthless schemer she played in The Favourite. Here, she's frankly more interesting as Estella, smartly biding her time and plotting her next move, than she is as Cruella, who is often upstaged by her own wardrobe. Is Cruella meant to come off as misguided, unhinged or genuinely unscrupulous? The script tries to suggest a complicated mix of all three and winds up feeling mostly confused.
Cruella was flashily directed by Craig Gillespie, who previously made the darkly comic Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya. His filmmaking in Cruella is all on the surface, but that surface is undeniably entertaining. The soaring, whooshing camerawork sometimes seems to be channeling Goodfellas-era Martin Scorsese, and the rebellion-themed soundtrack is crammed with '60s and '70s hits from the Rolling Stones, the Doors, The Clash, Blondie and more. Cruella is much too long and undisciplined at two hours and 14 minutes, but in its best moments, it surges with a rude punk energy. It's not a bad movie, even if its protagonist isn't nearly bad enough.