There's an excellent Emma in "Cruella," but it may not be the Emma you're thinking of.
Emma Stone is the lead; she plays the title role in a comedy that takes place before most of the events of Disney's classic, animated "101 Dalmatians." But the real star is Emma Thompson. She's Cruella De Vil's nemesis, a fashion designer in 1960s London whose nastiness makes Cruella look like a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The movie, which is in theaters and on Disney Plus, takes awhile getting to either Emma. A 15-minute prologue spends too long filling us in on Cruella's youth, when she's played by kids we're never going to see again and aren't interested in. Things start to click when the adult Cruella, played by Stone, snags an apprenticeship at a design house ruled by the Baroness (Thompson), who announces to no one in particular, "Gorgeous and vicious — it's my favorite combination."
There's a little Miranda Priestly in the Baroness and there's more than a little "The Devil Wears Prada" in "Cruella," which was cowritten by "Prada" screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna. Often, it's hard to say for whom the PG-13 movie was intended. That it comes from Disney and is a brand extension of a children's book/movie makes it appear to be for kids. But the subject matter — two women battle for control of London's fashion market — slides it closer to the "Prada" audience of stylish women and the gay men who love them.
Either way, it's the mean authority figure we care about, not the younger woman that we're supposed to love.
This isn't even Thompson's first "Prada" knockoff, as she also starred in Mindy Kaling's "Late Night." But this character is broader, funnier, more narcissistic and, because she doesn't even bother to hide her monstrousness behind a veneer of etiquette, more strangely lovable.
Thompson usually plays sensible people who don't care about fashion but she looks smashing here in gowns designed by two-time Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan, many of which frame her neck with architectural swoops of fabric. The Baroness is more openly contemptuous than Priestly was and much of her behavior is criminal. Thompson embraces her inner ogre so fully that she makes it great fun to watch the Baroness bark at an underling, "I need you to stop talking, Roger, so I have a gap to fire you."
As is often the case, the villain gets all the best lines. Give Stone credit for trying to break out of the nice roles she nearly always plays, but she's not a great fit for Cruella (I'm thinking Kristen Stewart? Florence Pugh?). She also looks great in the Beavan designs, particularly a ballgown with a parachute-like train that must be 30 feet long. But we never get a handle on Stone's Cruella. She is wishy-washy in a way that the character who inspired the line "Whenever you see her, you start getting ill" cannot be.
It's not entirely Stone's fault. In a sure sign there were script issues, six writers are credited and none can decide what to do with their main character. Since she's the protagonist, they seem to think she can't be as evil as she was in "101 Dalmatians." That forces them either to offer pop psychology explanations for why she broke bad, or to flip her back and forth from good to bad with no explanation (her treatment of minions Jasper and Horace is most puzzling, especially since Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser are excellent in the roles).
Writing this screenplay wouldn't have been an easy assignment since it must make a legendary villain who hates puppies into a likable gal while also setting up a transition into the story told by the original "101 Dalmatians" (stick around through the credits for that).
The weird thing is there's a gifted screenwriter on board who seems ideal for pulling all those things together: Thompson, who won an Oscar for adapting Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility." That screenplay was gorgeous and vicious, as well as romantic and sweet — my favorite combination.
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for violence.
Theater: Wide release and Disney Plus.