Producers:  Andrew Gunn, Marc Platt and Kristin Burr   Director: Craig Gillespie   Screenplay: Dana Fox and Tony McNamara  Cast:  Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, John McCrea, Kayvan Novak, Jamie Demetriou, Niamh Lynch, Andrew Leung, Billie Gadson, Ziggy Gardner, Joseph MacDonald, and Florisa Kamara    Distributor: Disney  

Grade:  C-    

A misconceived prequel that’s too archly artificial for kids, too witlessly juvenile for adults, and too tedious for viewers of any age, “Cruella” describes how Estella, a mischievous young girl with two-toned hair (half white, half black), became the infamous Cruella de Vil.  Sort of: the attempt to turn the villainess of “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” into an ambitious young woman who triumphs against a sea of adversity doesn’t really work as a generator of sympathy, unless you forget what supposedly followed in her life, according to the books and previous pictures. 

But the film’s sheer visual extravagance might be enough to satisfy some viewers.  Fionna Crombie’s eye-popping production design and Jenny Beavan’s outlandishly gorgeous costumes are two of the major stars here, as is Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography, which gives the opulent images a lustrous glow.

There are two stars in-front-of-the-camera as well—Emma Stone, playing Estella/Cruella, and Emma Thompson as her idol/nemesis Baroness von Hellman. Doing a Disney-fied take on “The Devil Wears Prada” (Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote that film, joins two others in a “story by” credit here), the two actresses vie with one another in what might be called a barbed-hauteur contest, and though they both prove highly proficient at snooty scowls and highly affected line readings, their ability in that respect does little to make the film engaging or funny.

When we first meet Estella, in the 1960s, she’s a mere girl (played successively by Billie Gadson and Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) who’s meant, one supposes, to be likably rebellious but comes across instead as a nasty brat.  She gets into all sorts of trouble at school, and after being expelled loses her doting mother (Emily Beecham), who, on their journey to London to start a new life, is murdered at a haute couture gala held in a remote castle.  (Naturally Estella and her dog create chaos at the event; this is becoming an obligatory bit of business in such tales of rambunctious tomboys—witness a similar sequence, though with a squirrel rather than a pooch, in the upcoming “Spirit Untamed.”  Some snarling Dalmatians are also involved, a bit of psychological shorthand, one supposes, for her later attitude toward the breed.)

Anyway, Estella winds up an orphan on the London streets, where she’s befriended by two Dickensian thieves her own age, brothers Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald, who accept her—and her dog—as part of their little gang, which includes a second adorable pooch.

Jump ahead to the 1970s, and Estella (now Stone), Jasper (Joel Fry), Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) are still engaged in their small-time illegalities, but Estella harbors the dream she’s held since childhood—of becoming a big-time fashion designer.  To that end Jasper finagles her a job at a ritzy department store, but her obnoxious manager (Jamie Demetriou) assigns her only the most menial tasks.

Good fortune strikes, however, when Estella’s accidental ruining of a window display catches the eye of the foremost designer of the time, The Baroness.  This arrogant, self-styled genius takes the girl on as a member of her entourage, not entirely to the joy of her snooty factotum Jeffrey (Andrew Leung) or lawyer (Kayvan Novak); but Estella makes herself indispensible by reason of her imaginative designs. 

Since the credit remains with The Baroness, however, Estella’s only recourse is to create her alternate persona of Cruella, who becomes her own employer’s most celebrated competitor, assembling a devoted entourage of her own, not just Jasper and Horace but reporter Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who had been one of her few childhood friends (played then by Florisa Kamara) and flamboyant Artie (John McCrea), the owner of a vintage clothing shop.  (Artie’s reportedly the first acknowledged gay character in a Disney live-action movie, as if that’s of great social significance.)

This odd relationship between Estella and The Baroness can’t last, of course—especially in view of the latter’s unquenchable desire to be number one and a revelation from John (Mark Strong), The Baroness’ stoic butler, that will remind you of “The Empire Strikes Back” (another Disney property now, so not to worry).  Thus in the end “Cruella” becomes a story of righteous revenge, carried out in what’s meant to be an extremely clever fashion, that brings the erstwhile Estella to the pinnacle of her chosen profession, the claimant to the Baroness’ title, and a supposedly rehabilitated version of the Disney villainess audiences once simply loved to hate but are now supposed to understand instead.

There some fun to be had in watching Stone and Thompson camp it up royally as the dueling designers, though Estella’s pervasive narration gets grating fast.  The rest of the cast contribute gleefully to the cartoonish style Craig Gillespie has chosen for the material. 

As already noted, the visual pizzazz can also have an intoxicating effect.  But Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing allows the farrago to drag on interminably—a running-time of well over two hours—and the background music is basically a stream of pop songs strung together at brutally loud volume, often chosen to comment jejunely on the screen action.  (Credit is given to original music by Nicholas Britell, but little of it is apparent; the dominant figure was obviously music supervisor Susan Jacobs).

One can understand why, from a purely mercenary perspective, Disney elected to give Cruella de Vil the Maleficent treatment;  after all, the two pictures that humanized the Sleeping Beauty witch made oodles of cash, so this one might too.  But it’s a trend that, like the studio’s habit of doing live-action remakes of their animated classics, amounts to little more than capitalistic cannibalism.  In any event, in this instance the result is a project that feels as if it was misguided from the very first story conference.