Character names don’t come any better than Cruella de Vil — you know, the fur-loving, dog-detesting “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” villainess with the shock of white hair. The 1961 Disney animated film got a live-action remake in 1996 as “101 Dalmatians,” with Glenn Close sinking her canines into the role. Playing Hamlet may or may not be every actor’s ambition. But playing a cartoon character is every actor’s dream.
Watching how much fun Emma Stone has with the title role in “Cruella” you can see why. Kohl-eyed and in command, she vamps, she camps, she stamps — and not just her foot. If Stone put any more spin on her line readings, she could audition to play a gyroscope.
She’s the best thing about “Cruella,” which is both playing in theaters and streaming on Disney+. You can hear the fun she’s having in her excellently throaty English accent. You can see it in how she gets to dress to the nines (dress to the tens, or even elevenses, would be more accurate). The audience has fun, too. Or as much fun as there is to be had with a movie so uneven in tone and intent. There are times when “Cruella” seems like a spinoff of “Joker” (2019) — another overlong, overproduced origin story set in the ‘70s about a much-put-upon character whom events transform into . . . well, Cruella isn’t as scary as the Joker (who is?), but this isn’t a movie for little ones.
Cruella was born Estella, and the movie begins with her being born. (This is an origin story that really originates.) The most famous Estella is in Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” and this Estella has a highly Dickensian youth. In 1964, she’s expelled from her private school. After a shocking event — again, this isn’t a movie for little kids — Estella escapes to London. She joins forces with a pair of amiable young pickpockets, Jasper and Horace, and “Great Expectations” hands the baton to “Oliver Twist.” The future Cruella has met her future henchmen.
Ten years pass, and Estella is now played by Stone, and Jasper and Horace by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser (both good, but with less and less to do). Estella has developed a passion for couture. She goes to work for London’s leading designer, the Baroness, who becomes Estella’s mentor and nemesis and Something Else (capital letters? yes, capital letters). Playing the Baroness, Emma Thompson is non-stop over-the-top. She’s like Stone that way, only brittle around the edges. The Baroness arrives onscreen in Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, wears a succession of turbans, and generally behaves as if fashion is a contact sport.
This makes sense, in a London poised between glam and punk — and with Aline Brosh McKenna, who adapted “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), working on the script. “Cruella” credits no fewer than five writers, and the many hands show in the many influences the movie gestures toward. Besides “Joker,” Dickens, and “Prada,” Roald Dahl can be detected (the blend of darkness and aspirational innocence); and the longer the movie lasts, the more it seems like leftover Tim Burton. Craig Gillespie (”I, Tonya,” 2017) directed.
“Cruella” really is all over the map. You even get to hear that all-over-ness on the soundtrack. It features, among others, Supertramp, the Zombies, Joe Tex, Nancy Sinatra, Nina Simone, the Doors, Suzi Quatro, Doris Day, the Clash, Judy Garland, J. Geils and . . . you get the idea. You also see it in various throwaway bits. Some are kind of great. Estella’s first day on the job is shot as an homage to the Copa tracking shot in “Goodfellas” (1990). Some are kind of silly. One of the Baroness’s assistants has Yves Saint Laurent’s hairstyle and glasses.
“From the very beginning I’ve always made a statement,” Cruella announces at the outset in voice-over. Very true, and the movie that bears her name makes statements of its own — a lot of them. It just can’t decide which ones matter. “Elegance is refusal,” Coco Chanel famously said. Excess is just the opposite.
Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis; inspired by Dodie Smith’s novel “The One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs, and streaming on Disney+. 134 minutes. PG-13 (violence and thematic elements).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.