*. It was only after I’d finished watching Cruella and was sitting down to write these notes that I realized, to my surprise, that it is not in fact a superhero (or supervillain) movie. I mean, the source is the Disney animated feature 101 Damatians (1961) that was later given a live-action treatment with Glenn Close playing Cruella in 1996 and 2000, but Cruella de Vil has no superpowers.
*. In 2021, however, everything was being pressed in the same mold. So what this movie presents is what’s known in comic-book land as an “origin story.” Then, when she launches onto the London fashion scene, Cruella is basically cast as the Joker, showing up at events in crazy make-up and generally causing chaos. Surrounded by security at one society event she even breaks out some martial arts moves. So basically, yes, this is a superhero movie.
*. All of which just means that none of it is new. Take, for example, the girl power/feminist message. We even begin with Cruella’s voiceover talking about how she is woman and we will hear her roar. What we’re going to get is the tale of a young woman coming into her own. Though even here we are in forced back into the superhero mold. Cruella is the mousy understudy to the glamorous and dictatorial Baroness (Emma Thompson), just as Michelle Pfeiffer had been a mouse before turning into Catwoman in Batman Returns, or Kristen Wiig before turning into Cheetah in Wonder Woman 1984.
*. Sticking with this feminist angle for just a moment, I had originally described Cruella as a vamp in my notes then crossed that out. Though reading some of the reviews I see that’s how she was often described. The reason I changed my mind is that the meaning of vamp is a woman who aggressively seduces and preys on men. The significant thing here, at least it seemed significant to me, is that Cruella and the Baroness are both completely asexual. There isn’t even the hint of romance in the air for either of them. I guess that’s a feminist angle too, and if it was intentional I found myself wishing they’d done more with it. Do they despise men? Do they have no interest in sex, or are they frightened of it?
*. Another question raised by the film’s feminism, if that’s the right word, is the idea of the empowered woman as psychopath. This is something I started noticing about ten or so years ago in a number of novels and it still gets a fair bit of play. It’s really front and center in Gone Girl, for example. What does it mean that previous psycho women — like those in Play Misty for Me or Fatal Attraction — were clearly villainous, but now their very villainy is seen as heroic, even to the point of accepting and valorizing homicidal tendencies? Note also that director Craig Gillespie’s previous movie had been I, Tonya, which set out to rehabilitate bad girl Tonya Harding.
*. I think all of this raises some interesting questions. A lot more interesting than the movie itself, to be honest, which I found long (134 minutes) and dull. As you’d expect from any big budget (rather vaguely reported as somewhere between $100 million and $200 million) superhero movie, the production values are tops. But the story is ridiculous, with a big twist that you can see coming in the opening act, and outside of the Baroness none of the supporting characters are remotely memorable. Even the dogs are sidelined.
*. Another feature it shares with the superhero genre is the jacked soundtrack, which has so many songs stuffed into it you might almost think of it as a musical. Do we credit/blame James Gunn for this? In any even, hearing some of the tunes, especially Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard,” lifted my spirits. But when you give up on the plot and start waiting for the next tune on the playlist to drop you know a movie is running on fumes.
*. Emma Stone is fine as Cruella and has to really work to keep up with Thompson’s Baroness, but really they’re both playing cartoon characters and I don’t think that’s all that hard. As you would expect — nay, know! — things are set up for a sequel. I don’t know how likely that is, but I have no interest in seeing any more of this Cruella. I’m not sure who the target audience was here, what age or gender, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t part of it. So no more fancy-dress balls for me. If anything, I think it’s time for the franchise to complete the circle and go back to being about the dogs.