I genuinely cannot think of any way in which humanity is advanced by taking an all-time magnificent psychopathic comic villain like Cruella De Vil, raving madwoman of the 1961 Walt Disney animated feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and giving her a sympathetic origin story. But then, I cannot think of any reason to have done such a thing to Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West, or Disney's own Maleficent, and yet here we are, and it's official: the four best purely evil villains in American cinema have now all been ruined.

Not that the title character of Disney's new Cruella, played by Emma Stone with a very game, frequently exhausting attempt at an English accent, actually feels like she's meaningfully the same character as the deranged collection of slashing graphic lines that supervising animator Marc Davis graced the world with 60 years ago. Indeed, unlike most of Disney's live-action branding exercises, nostalgia for the original seems to be at most an incidental justification for Cruella, which can only benefit from not keeping the original Dalmatians in mind, nor its direct live-action remake, 1996's 101 Dalmatians, since to do so is to come into contact with the idea that the character this film is asking us to root for might, a couple years down the line from the end of this movie, decide that slaughtering 99 puppies to turn them into a fur coat might be a really swell thing to do. Cruella goes so far as to make a sarcastic joke at the idea that the main character might even contemplate doing such a nightmarish thing. So whatever it is, it's not a prequel, though it spends a decent amount of time, including its last couple of scenes, acting as though it wants to be read that way.

So to just take the thing all by itself: this is the story of a young woman named Estella, whose passion from a very small age was to become a great fashion designer. Unfortunately, she came from low standing, with a working class mother (Emily Beecham) who could only encourage her, but not do anything to help her; coupled with Estella's tendency to lash out violently at any real or perceived injustices that happened to her in school (which earn her the affectionate nickname "Cruella" from her mother, and director Craig Gillespie and the five credited writers almost manage to make this feel plausible), this leads to the girl becoming a social outcast early on. And it's about to get worse, since Mom's attempt to get money from the Baronness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), with whom she has a mysterious past, only ends with the Baronness attacking her with a pack of horrible-looking CGI dalmatians, who push the woman right over the cliff, as Estella watches. I confess to my limitation as a viewer: "the formative event of Cruella De Vil's life was watching her mother get murdered by dalmatians" is stupid on a level I was never, ever, going to be able to get beyond.

Anyway, to make a long story short - a decency that that the slovenly-paced 134-minute film does not itself extend to the viewer - Estella gets a job a the Baronness's own haute couture design house, and shortly thereafter she creates an alter-ego for herself, Cruella De Vil. Under this guise she and her clumsy thief friends Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) perpetrate several acts of excitingly cutting-edge fashion vandalism that make her the toast of London's chattering classes, while earning the full brunt of the Baronness's ice-cold psychopathic rage. She also invents punk, seemingly - the film is set in the 1970s for no discernible reason beyond that being the period that allows the filmmakers to use the soundtrack of ludicrously obvious, witless song cues that they wanted, and also to include Disney's sixth or seventh First-Ever Gay Character in the form of a sexless David Bowie clone played by John McCrea.

That's obviously not enough plot to get us to the film's running time, and it only gets there by piling on a lot of inelegant plot complications, one of which is exceedingly awful in ways that pretty much ruin whatever thematic point the film thinks it's making. But it's enough to give Cruella some flashes of charm. The beginning and end of the film are both pretty bad, and the beginning lasts for what feels like a whole damn hour (it is in fact only about 40 minutes), but it middles well, mostly during the sequence in which Cruella torments the Baronness like a sort of high fashion Bugs Bunny. Even here, we find evidence of the film's most significant flaw, its complete inability to regulate pacing: it is both rushed and sluggish, sometimes simultaneously, which I think is a byproduct of editor Tatiana S. Riegel cutting much too quickly through scenes that are much too short, so short that they're barely able to generate a story, so even though it's moving at breakneck speed, nothing seems to happen. Still, the montages in the middle of the film generally have more spirited energy than the montages at the beginning of the film (it has a montage problem, probably on account of its addiction to song cues), where it's mostly just idling along as a Scorsese rip-off more extreme and more artistically confused than anything in Gillespie's last film, 2017's I, Tonya. They're the place in the movie where we see the most examples of Jenny Beavan's wonderful costume design, the best thing that Cruella has to offer visually, pivoting between sleek high fashion lines and aggressive pseudo-punk vulgarism, and sometimes those two things mashed together; they're also in general where we get the best acting from Stone, since it only involves her striking poses and delivering facial expressions, and not speaking.

When it's not frantically cutting around the world's most obvious playlist, Cruella settles in for lots of scenes with irritatingly soft cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis, which has the dingy, low-contrast look of footage that wasn't color corrected properly (or at all), a dispiritingly common sight in American filmmaking. During these scenes, Stone purrs threateningly posh one-liners that are undecided if Cruella is a maniac in waiting, a clever antihero wearing psychopathy as a disguise, or a wounded innocent growing a psychological callus against the world, though at least she finds a way of remaining tonally consistent no matter what the writing says. Better yet, during these scenes, Thompson narrows her eyes and spits out savage cruelties with a boredom that's much closer to actual sociopathic menace than the effortful cartoon version the script dumps on Cruella; the Baronness is the exact opposite kind of dangerous lunatic of the frenzied whirlwind from the original film, or the one Glenn Close played so well in 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians in 2000, but somehow it offers Thompson just as much opportunity to chew the scenery in her evilly quiet and cool way. After Beavan's costumes, she's the best reason to bother with the film; it's never as much fun as it thinks it is, largely because it seems to be insisting on that fun with such heavy-handed eagerness (I really can't overstate how incessant the music is and how much I hate it), and it is inexplicably allergic to color or any other sort of visual energy. But it does have a distinct aura of campiness thanks to the acting - Stone as well as Thompson, though less organically - and that at least gives it a personality that it hasn't borrowed in every detail from a previous movie. For a Disney live-action remake - prequel, spinoff, whatever - that's practically enough to make it a triumph.