Review: Cruella stars Emma Stone in a prequel the Dalmatians story

Cruella (PG, 134 minutes)

3 stars

Until the credits roll in this new Disney extravaganza, any impressionable kid will be thinking that Dalmatians are snarling, snapping dogs to be wary of. Not the kind you would want to pat or have as a pet.

Although Cruella claims to be based on The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the evergreen children's story by Dodie Smith published in 1956, radical changes have been made.

Emma Stone, centre, in Cruella. Picture: Disney

Emma Stone, centre, in Cruella. Picture: Disney

For a start, this is about a girl desperate to work in fashion. It is an origin story, explaining why Cruella De Vil got to be a villain. But who's asking anyway? The fashions worn by Emma Stone, the young Cruella whose real name is Estella, are fabulous, but this is aimed above the heads of younger viewers.

The burgeoning Dalmatian litter has shrunk drastically to a trio of attack dogs, one by the name of Genghis, and there isn't a dog called Pongo in sight. It's not until the very end, among scenes tacked on in the final credits, that a dog appears with the name of the book's lead character.

So, Cruella has nothing to do with cute spotted puppies. It is takedown of the fashion industry. And it is about ambition and the generational handover, but isn't nearly as fun and feisty as it ought to be.

I for one am fully prepared to believe that the fashion industry is a tough workplace. I have had the doco about Anna Wintour, The September Issue, and fiction feature The Devil Wears Prada to guide me.

The lovely Emma Thompson has the role of the fashion diva in Cruella, opposite Stone as the hungry new talent snapping at her heels. As Baroness Von Hellman, Thompson's imperious fashion leader of fashion is someone to both loathe and admire. Thompson, such an accomplished actor, does her best with the role but doesn't quite work as the snarky superbitch she is supposed to be.

Stone, on the other hand, is terrific as Estella who morphs into Cruella De Vil. This is her story, a prequel if you like, about how she became the extreme fashion maven of the book who imagines that Dalmatian fur would make her an excellent coat.

At school she was unpopular, constantly getting into fights, but there was a friend who would become useful later. When the two friends meet up again, Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) has become a reporter covering the fashion scene in 1970s London. An essential ally for aspiring designer Estella on the road to fashion celebrity.

The Badun brothers, Jasper and Horace, played here very engagingly by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser respectively, are also there to help. They bond as family for Cruella when she arrives in London, an orphan, and they grow up to become grifters working the city streets together.

It's too bad these two characters, who hail from the original story, don't have more to do. Most of the best comedic moments in Cruella involve the Badun brothers.

Many other lead performers are good too, but there is too much going on.

The armies of people in the film's art and visual effects departments have created a Dickensian look. It's somewhere between the swinging '60s and Victorian London, and it suits the film's gothic feel. But the soundtrack pumps out popular hits of the era that can really get in the way of the story.

Even though writer Tony McNamara of The Favourite and The Great was one of the writers, the script lacks sparkle and bite.

Cruella is billed as a comedy, but funny is not its strong point. Glenn Close was a delight in her interpretation of Cruella De Vil in the 1996 Dalmatians film with Jeff Daniels. That was Disney too. In fact, all the adaptations have had Disney involvement.

The director of Cruella, Craig Gillespie, has put every last cent of the $200 million budget on screen. The results are baroque and a big change from his previous works, I, Tonya and Lars and the Real Girl, both low-key and very good.

Forget the Dalmatians. This spectacular that runs for two hours plus has been packaged as a subversive modern fairytale in the spirit of a "mean girls" teen comedy. With much more fizz in the writing department and less razzmatazz in the visuals it might have been a knockout.

This story Spectacular origin story lacks fizz first appeared on The Canberra Times.