Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the frightening serial killer at the heart of Thomas Harris’ “The Silence of the Lambs,” is one of the great villains of 20th century fiction and film.
After the commercial juggernaut of the both the novel and film, “Hannibal,” Harris decided to expand on the vaguely suggested origin tale of how the vile doctor came to be. The result was the novel and film, “Hannibal Rising,” which made literal the why’s and how’s of Lecter’s upbringing, training and decaying state of mind.
It didn’t work on page or as a movie.
By giving a perfectly crafted character an extensive but uninspired and wildly contrived backstory, it only succeeded in undermining what made him scary in the first place.
Disney’s “Cruella,” their latest ill-advised, live-action remake of their animated classics and easily their screwiest so far, provides a similar experience to “Hannibal Rising”: “Nazis ate my sister” have been traded out for “Dalmatians killed my Mum.”
Nobody on board seems to get it -- Cruella De Vil is deranged and, not unlike Dr. Lecter, attempts to humanize her are wrong headed and pointless. Let me get in front of a bad idea that is likely gestating at Disney right now: No, we do not need an “Uncle Scar” prequel or “Jafar: The Beginning” or “Young Gaston Goes to Grade School.” We know these characters are evil.
Let’s just leave it at that.
The plot: a little girl, named Estella, was born with half her hair black and the other half white. She’s bullied constantly and, even worse, witnesses a tragedy and feels personally responsible. After living as a thief with fashion designer prospects, she enters the fashion world and unravels at the discovery of a personal connection she has with her nemesis.
Fifteen minutes in, we get Emma Stone playing Estella; the actress is trying to invest her character with dramatic layers and has moments where she is scary and comparable to the animated source, but it’s not an entirely successful performance.
This is partly because of a trying-too-hard accent, which frequently dips in and out. The 1961 animated De Vil was part Bette Davis, part living skeleton and completely nutters. Stone’s turn is like her accent -- too self-aware.
The pathos and trajectory that Angelina Jolie had in the remarkable “Malificent” (2014) are not here. For that matter, this is another overproduced turkey.
It turns out Horace and Jasper, De Vil’s henchmen (rotten brutes in the original, now lovable brutes in this version) get their origin story, too. The roles are played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser (who does a workable Bob Hoskins impression) and their comic duo reminded me of Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson’s “Iggy and Spike” in “Super Mario Bros.” (1993). I’m not being complimentary.
At a very long, brutal 135-minutes, I became numb to its awfulness. It’s less Who-Is-This-For (though that’s a valid question) than Why-Does-This-Exist?
Deciding on making the all-CGI dalmatians murderous is jaw-dropping. Parents, do not take your kids to see this, please. The bone-headed, John Hughes-penned 1996 live-action remake, with Glenn Close’s foaming-at-the-mouth take on De Vil, was lousy enough. but at least knew its audience.
It’s well made by director Craig Gillespie, whose best movie is still “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007) and involving enough that I kept wishing it were better. “Cruella” constantly goes off the rails, regains its footing, then bottoms out again. There’s an embarrassing concert sequence during the third act, far from the only scene that had me wondering aloud, “Are you kidding me?”
There’s also a groan-worthy BIG TWIST in the third act, which illustrates that the filmmakers weren’t above recycling from Disney’s “Star Wars,” franchise, on top of bits stolen from “The Terminator” (!), “The Dark Knight” and even a Marvel-esque mid-credits scene that sets things in place for a sequel.
With its emphasis on heists, tough characters in a European setting and overly stylish camera moves, it’s like a bad Guy Ritchie/Disney movie (even more so than “Aladdin,” an actual bad Guy Ritchie/ Disney movie).
So many poor decisions on hand:
- Stone’s obtrusive narration, which is unceasing for the first and second act
- By the second act, it becomes, almost literally, “The Devil Wears Prada.” Stepping in for Meryl Streep is Emma Thompson, who’s good but her portrayal feels as recycled as the plot. As the sympathetic bald character stand-in, the eternally one-note Mark Strong is a very poor man’s Stanley Tucci. Thompson, and the film itself, is also tapping into “Working Girl,” though that came out in 1988, so I suppose the Mouse House doesn’t suspect anyone will notice.
- It also pilfers from “Batman Returns,” where the meek Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a front for the more aggressive, unhinged Catwoman. Here, Estella lives through her outgoing, confident alter ego, Cruella, who performs a series of Banksy-like fashion stunts. Rather than providing a psychological profile, it comes across like Estella takes her cosplaying too far.
- The great song soundtrack works overtime to distract us from how uninspired this is, which is the same thing “Suicide Squad” tried to pull. It’s rated PG-13 but is a timid, formulaic corporate product -- note how when Ross Royce’s song “Car Wash” plays on the soundtrack, they lower the volume so you can’t hear an offensive word (the one that’s a synonym for a female dog).
- Someone actually says, “The kid’s a snowflake.” Wait, doesn’t this take place in the late twentieth century? An anachronistic touch or just lazy writing? I’m betting on the latter.
- Another tired trope: Cruella actually states she’s doing everything for, you guessed it, “Revenge.” If you were to combine the work of the two screenwriters, you’re looking at the authors of “What Happens in Vegas,” “Couples Retreat,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” “The Favourite,” “Hot Pursuit,” “The Wedding Date” and this. Yikes.
It will work for some, just by being so different, meaning an inevitable cult following awaits. However, apologists will be hard pressed to stump for the shallow characterizations, wildly inconsistent, try-anything tone and Kardashian cattiness in place of real depth.
One and a Half Stars