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Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, John McCrea, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste

Director: Craig Gillespie

Long and unwieldy though it is, this prequel to the 101 Dalmatians films still deserves to be seen on the big screen. There's a lot wrong with it, but the dresses (and set dressings) are fabulous) and the action when it comes is fun. In fact, even as the movie groans under the weight of its runtime, you feel there's a sparky, spiky, witty little action comedy fighting to get out.

Brought up by an auburn-haired mother (Beecham from TV's The Pursuit of Love), Estella at 12 (Seifert-Cleveland) has intelligence and attitude in abundance as well as hair that's half black and half white. Enrolled in senior school in mid 1960s' England, she promises to behave and keep her 'Cruella' alter ego in check; but her antics soon have the headmaster (Leo Bill) entering black marks on her record, although it seems she's mainly protecting herself and her friend from bullies.

These scenes are full of fun and you wish there were more of them, with Seifert-Cleveland very good indeed as our sub-teen anti-heroine. This kid has real talent, in contrast to the rough-and-ready performances of some of the cast. All too soon, however, things change for the (even) worse, as a visit to a grandiose hall goes, partly thanks to Estella, badly wrong. A trio of fang-bearing dalmatians is called into action and push Mom over a nearby cliff.

An escaping Estella, left on her own, reaches London, where she teams up with two Artful Dodger types and picks a pocket or two. Yearning to be a fashion designer, she lands a job at Liberty's (big plug for the London store here) but soon finds herself scrubbing toilet floors - until she catches the eye of supremely egotistical fashion supremista The Baroness (Thompson) who takes Estella under her wing.

Things go well at first for the whip-smart newcomer, but The Baroness's major-domo (Strong, in the kind of role usually reserved for Stanley Tucci), lets Estella in on a secret that makes The Baroness a mortal enemy, and turns Estella into Cruella.

I'm not sure about executive producer Stone's decision to hand herself the leading role, but she certainly gives it a good go, if overshadowed by Thompson's imperiously camp Baroness. Decent editing, however, proves as elusive in this film as Banksy, with a storyline packed with unnecessary exposition, and several sequences held too long, notably Cruella's soliloquys. And the plot has more holes than a fashionable pair of jeans, even if it is neatly (and amusingly) rounded off at the end.

On Disney+ and some cinemas

David Quinlan

USA 2021. UK Distributor: Disney. Colour by Company 3.
134 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 27 May 2021