They're not bad, they were just drawn that way. Or at least that's what the current big-screen mini-boom in villain origin stories from Joker to Venom and Birds of Prey's Harley Quinn seems to suggest — a trend so far-reaching now, it's even touched Disney. So what does it look like when the house that happily-ever-afters built gets into the antihero business?  

The answer, apparently, is a movie as shiny and hectic as Cruella: a heady exercise in style and scenery-chewing whose high-gloss chaos seems designed less for cohesive storytelling or world-building than for looking super-cool in previews. Though the production is rich in other things, including Oscar-winning Emmas: Emma Stone stars as the iconic title character, an orphaned urchin with a flair for fashion and a marked distaste for certain canine breeds; Emma Thompson is the Baroness von Hellman, her erstwhile employer, mentor, and nemesis.

Only one of them is actually British, though Stone has adopted a plummy theatrical rasp for Estella (played in the opening scenes by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) — an odd, unruly little girl whose stormy temperament and bifurcated hair marks her from birth as an outcast. ("I've always made a statement," she purrs early on. "Not everyone appreciated that. But I wasn't for everyone.") Her tenderhearted mother (Emily Beecham) tries her best to protect her, but when those efforts end in tragedy, young Estella is left to make her own way in the mean (if conspicuously clean) streets of swinging 1960s London.  

That's where she befriends fellow ragamuffins Jasper (Joel Fry), and Horace (Richard Jewell's Paul Walter Hauser), the boys who will become her found family and future partners in grift. They may be petty criminals, but they're also loyal to a fault; it's their machinations that eventually help land her a low-level job in the atelier of the Baroness, imperious queen of ladies' dressmaking. Her ladyship, it's soon made clear, is a ruthless co-opter of other people's talents, and Estella's inspired sketches are exactly the kind of looks she's more than happy to kill for.

Thus from the ashes of a disillusioned Estella — and several calamitous plot revelations to come — is Cruella born: a goddess of vengeance, righteous in her fury and fake (or are they?) furs. Director Craig Gillespie, who skirted camp so nimbly in 2017's I, Tonya, pits his lead actresses against each other in a dynamic maybe best described as The Devil Wears Dalmation (and in fact, Devil Wears Prada scribe Aline Brosh McKenna is one of six writers credited here).  

He never fully nails down the tone, but there's more than a little Meryl Streep in Thompson's glacial Baroness, and at least a little anxious Anne Hathaway beneath Stone's operatic snarls and elaborate wiggery. (To watch Thompson pop an olive in her mouth or casually crush the spirit of an underling is a gift not even a mute button could take away.)

The costumes, by Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road, Sherlock Holmes), blossom into full fantasy as the story moves into the '70s: a Vivienne Westwood fever dream of punk-rock couture, swathed in yards of trash-bag latex and chiffon. The soundtrack, too, is a gold-plated celebration of the era; you can almost hear the Disney dollars ding as the canonized hits of Blondie and the Stooges and the Rolling Stones pour through the speakers.

But those endless pieces of flair can also feel like a noisy substitute for a story line that never quite materializes, subsumed instead by showpiece moments that seem to lurch from scene to scene: a collection of pin-drop lines and killer GIFs pressed haphazardly into movie form. That may be at least in part a product of trying to be all PG-13 things to all people by giving them a reimagined villainess who is both worthy of empathy (she doesn't just skin puppies for fun) and naughty enough to be safely but certifiably outrageous. So Cruella comes off as a curious animal; eager to change its spots, and trying a little bit of everything along the way. Grade: B

 Cruella hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on May 28.

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Cruella (2021 Movie)
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