It's a battle of broads in Cruella, not exactly a prequel to One Hundred and Dalmatians but not entirely divorced from the source material either. Longer than it should be, Cruella does what a lot of modern films do nowadays: explain evil. Whether this evil needs explaining is never asked though.
Young Estella, born with black-and-white hair, struggles between being the good girl her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) wants her to be, and the bad girl inside her. After getting expelled thanks to fighting back against her school bullies, Catherine goes to "an old friend" for financial help. Estella witnesses three Dalmatians push her mother off a cliff, and she blames herself thinking the dogs were after her.
Now arriving in London, she quickly falls in with two pickpockets. Ten years go by, and Estella (Emma Stone) and her partners in crime Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Houser) continue living off their wits and petty crimes. However, Estella yearns to be a fashion designer, so Jasper finagles for Estella a job at Liberty, the chicest of chic boutiques. The job sadly isn't that of a designer but of a cleaning woman.
After drunkenly creating a fabulous window display, Estella grabs the eyes of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), Liberty's owner and the designer of all designers. The Baroness takes Estella under her wing, or at least as much as this catty self-absorbed monster can. It's not long, however, before Estella connects The Baroness with her mother's death. Vowing revenge, enter her alter ego "Cruella", punk fashion designer who upstages The Baroness at every turn.
It's a battle royale between these two monsters, leading to a shocking connection between Estella and The Baroness and the rise of "Cruella de Vil".
The character of Cruella de Vil is so ingrained into the popular culture that even if one has not seen either the animated or live-action version of One Hundred and One Dalmatians you recognize the character. She is only one of two animated characters to be listed in the American Film Institute's 50 Greatest Screen Villains ("Man" from Bambi being a questionable third). How else to describe someone who wants to kill puppies to make herself a coat out of them but a villainess?
Whether Cruella sets out to rehabilitate the reputation of our attempted puppy murderess or not I can only guess at, but here is where I offer a different take on what is meant as a One Hundred and One Dalmatian prequel. Cruella isn't a prequel in my view. It's in an alternate universe altogether, and if you can divorce yourself from One Hundred and One Dalmatians altogether you may find Cruella a better fit.
Cruella's myriad of writers (five credited with Story and Screenplay, though one suspects more hands were here) attempted to give Cruella's monstrous (future) designs on the puppies some context by having Dalmatians take her beloved mother down. Maybe they thought this was clever. Maybe they thought it gave "context" to Cruella's Dalmatian fixation. It didn't do either.
Simply put, Cruella de Vil wanted to kill the puppies because she wanted a Dalmatian fur coat, nothing more, nothing less.
Cruella falls into a curious trend in modern storytelling where villains' motivations have to have "a reason, an explanation", some key that will rationalize why they are evil. I don't think such things are necessary: some people are evil because that brings them pleasure in some sort of way. It didn't have to be Dalmatians that did her mother in, but they were chosen because of sheer laziness, to "connect the dots" so to speak.
What Cruella really is a hodgepodge of other films, everything from Hannibal Rising to Maleficent to Oliver Twist to mostly The Devil Wears Prada (or maybe The De Vil Wears Prada). It shouldn't be a surprise given that one of the "story by" writers (Aline Brosh McKenna) wrote the screenplay to The Devil Wears Prada. In so many beats Estella/Cruella is a bizarre mix of Andrea Sachs and Miranda Priestly. For an origin story, Cruella isn't very original.
Cruella is also drowned out by being far too long and far too bombastic. When a young Jasper asks Estella, "So, what's your story?" we could have started there rather than spend what seemed endless time getting her backstory. The constant one-upmanship goes on and on, exhausting the viewer.
There's also the constant soundtrack of 70s punk songs to set the mood. Even that is barely tolerable, but ending the film with The Rolling Stone's Sympathy for the Devil was so predictable. Sadly, either they didn't or couldn't include The Clash's London Calling anywhere, which seemed like a missed opportunity.
Whatever positives are in the performances and overall production design. Stone (curiously struggling with her British accent) and Thompson (not struggling) devoured the scenery with total relish. Both dive in full-force in their utter cattiness, begging the question Which Witch is Witch (or something that rhymes with "witch"). Stone's various British tones make the incessant voiceover hard to bear. Thompson understood there was no character in The Baroness save for a British Miranda, so she went for an impersonation.
Hauser was excellent as the dimwitted Jasper, and Kimberly Howell-Baptiste, sadly underused, was strong as Anita Darling, Estella's only school friend who grew to be a combination Jimmy Olsen/Lois Lane covering Cruella's rising career.
Credit should also go to the makeup, production design and especially costumes, fitting for a film centered around the fashion world.
Cruella is long and loud, with little if no reason for being. However, if you take the dogs out of it, one could see it as mild entertainment.