Entertaining, yes. But also a cop-out.
Agreed that Cruella DeVil is not exactly one of the great villains of children's fiction. But the reason that she is so delightfully frightening for kids is that her desire is bluntly simple: skin the Dalmations, make a coat. Children instantly see her as the ultimate baddy who wants to kill puppies. It is the larger-than-life villain that James Bond likes to bring down to knees.
Why can't there simply be a woman villain whose doll has not been snatched away from her? I mean, she's BORN with salt and pepper hair, for God's sake! That should suggest to anyone that she is born with devilish tendencies but her character is pushed around so much that anyone becoming Cruella would not be surprising.
As per the current Hollywood trend, it is important to tell the 'origin' stories of all major characters, and in doing that one can't help but start with a 'contrast'. The idea is a key that can fit and jumpstart any new or fledgling film franchise.
Hence, we have this film.
It spends most of its part explaining why Cruella became... well, Cruella. In other words, it bends itself backward to give her a Dickensian sympathetic backstory and in the process declaws the character's unhinged, unexplainable mad desire.
The film even starts by showing Estella (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland initially) as a problem child and the reason her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) has to move from a quiet life in a small town to London. On her way, she stops at a castle throwing a large party. Keeping true to her nature Estella ignores her mother's advice to wait in the car and enters the party with her puppy (yes, she started as a dog lover). There she is chased by John the Valet (Mark Strong) and a set of vicious Dalmations. This chase results in her mother's death.
Left alone in London, Estella finds a home of sorts with two petty thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). She grows up to be a thief (now played by Emma Stone), but her ambition to become a fashion designer is still strong in her. She eventually finds a job as a cleaner at a reputed clothes showroom and all her efforts to rise are quashed by the shop's manager Roger (Kavyan Novak). That is until the doyen of the fashion world The Baroness (Emma Thomspon) chances upon Estella's window dressing.
From here, the film looks like a remake of The Devil Wears Prada, where a new and talented employee has to deal with the whims and fancies of her almost employer from hell. Plot twists ensue and the eager fashion designer changes into a Batman's Joker-ish Cruella hell-bent on revenge. This includes destroying The Baroness' reputation and of course, kidnapping her Dalmatians. For her to execute her plan requires her to don a coldness, even cruelty towards her friends They often wonder what happened to Estella and how they miss her. The shyness of the filmmakers to make Cruella boldly voice what was her main ambition in the original story reminded me of Nolan's inexplicable decision to not recognize Anne Hathway as The Batgirl. Why touch things that you are ashamed and scared of? The film even fails to make simplistic, wanna-be Feminist connections between finding your art and dealing with the world a la Frozen.
This is not to say Cruella is not entertaining. It has some good set-pieces, it flows fast and keeps you engaged. It is fun to see the actors square it out. In fact, it is a testament to the two talented actors at the center of the film that they make all proceedings come across as fresh.
For the reasons stated above, I found Thompson's character much more interesting. Perhaps, she is the only one who sees the soft reality of Cruella's character. Her announcement that her dogs are dead and have been made into Cruella's coat is delivered not with sadness but as an angry declaration. There is a clarity here that the dogs to whom someone might see her as 'attached' were mere props (and occasional guards).
Both Fry and Hauser are great and so is John McRea as Artie as a bold crossdressing, secondhand garments dealer. The production design is excellent and the costumes are actually enticing.
But as the film progresses, I found myself wondering that, if few years down the line, we will have to suffer a Baroness origin story where her parents were killed, her pets stolen, her dolls destroyed, and hence she had to transform into The Baroness.
POTENTIAL SPOILER AHEAD: Estella's symbolic burial at the end comes across as hollow because it is made clear that this Cruella will always have the puppy lover Estella as her center.
Cruella entertains as it plays but is, actually, a cop-out. It plays out as an extended apologia for a potentially interesting villain.