Disney, the media juggernaut determined to purchase, retool and reboot every known intellectual property under the sun, is currently entangled in the unfortunate trend of turning their beloved classic animated features into live action films. From the live action Aladdin and Mulan to the “not technically live action but real enough looking to be called live action” The Jungle Book and The Lion King, the big mouse seems dead set on bringing the stories that we grew up with to a newer generation. Unfortunately, these remakes are more often than not devoid of any originality to allow these films to stand on their own, yet lack the charm of what made the original source material so memorable. It’s a head-scratching business model for a company to be remaking their own films when they could very easily just rerelease the classics every ten years or so. 2D animation seems to be a dead medium in Disney’s eyes, however, as everything must now be life-like in an attempt to push the boundaries of what computer-generated effects can do. Despite this, Cruella attempts to break the mold Disney themselves have created by being the first of their films to put the focus on a classic villain rather than retelling an already told story.
Ah, Cruella de Vil, a character most famously known as a psychotic fashion designer who is ready and willing to slaughter Dalmatian puppies in order to make coats from their fur. She’s one of the most outrageous, over the top villains from Disney’s golden years, and we love her for it. She’s bad because she’s bad, evil because she’s evil. Sometimes that’s all a villain needs to be. While they may lack depth, they’re there to be the foil to our heroes; someone we love to hate and are actively rooting against despite their eccentric energy and magnetic pull. When you decide to make the antagonist into the protagonist, you run into the trouble of balancing whether we are supporting the character or are just here to watch their sinister nature play out. Joker did it, and while I feel it misstepped in trying to get the audience to sympathize with a character known for murdering people for the fun of it, it made a ton of money. At the end of the day, that’s all it seems Disney cares about nowadays.
Cruella kicks off what is sure to be a long line of Disney villain origin stories on at least a stylish note. A film about a manic fashionista has to be visually stunning, and the film mostly succeeds in its vibrant costumes and its “punk vs. elegance” set pieces. It mostly escapes the moral trappings of putting a puppy killer in the spotlight by rewriting history to better shape the world and character the film attempts to craft. While fans of 101 Dalmatians may find themselves disappointed in the humanization of the original text’s main villain, I found it to be the right call if they were really going to double down with a film about this character.
Emma Stone tackles the role as the titular devilish diva, bringing charm, elegance and familiarity to the role. First known as Estella, she starts her life as a rambunctious, outspoken child prodigy whose run-ins with authority eventually gets her expelled from school. Estella and her mother plan to move to London, but a “tragedy” upends their future and turns Estella into an orphan. I say “tragedy” because while the moment in-universe is horrifying, I couldn’t help but find myself laughing at the fan-fiction tier choice that I won’t spoil. Making her way to London, Estella falls in with a duo of young, pickpocketing street urchins, Jasper and Horace. The trio stick together and make a living as thieves until Estelle gets the chance to work in fashion. Her talents and audacity catch the eye of The Baroness, an ice cold fashion designer who almost feels more like Cruella than Cruella does. From there the two form a rivalry that continues to grow out of control as Estella’s alter ego, Cruella, looks to outshine The Baroness in the fashion world.
While intentionally silly and over the top, Stone owns the role as the maniacal designer. She does the best with what she’s given, although a lackluster script severely hinders her from completely humanizing the character. The film struggles to develop a character interesting enough to follow despite not always agreeing with them. Most of the time Cruella isn’t exactly redeemable or likable enough, with her past trauma not always connecting to her actions and motives. When she’s styling and profiling she’s great, but it’s with the smaller character moments she falls flat. On the other end, Emma Thompson’s Baroness is so incredibly evil that there is really no humanizing to be done. While this film’s Cruella is capable of showing some emotion, whether it be pity or gratitude, the Baroness is a stone-cold monster of a woman who shows no respect to any of her employees or contemporaries. She essentially is Cruella from the original 101 Dalmatians, so fans missing that signature villainy will be happen to find it in this new character. The supporting characters, namely Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), each do what they’re there to do, but never really leave a lasting impact. Props to the writers for turning the two bumbling henchmen into actual characters with a little bit of depth, but the writing for the two doesn’t do them many favors. The writing is bearable at times, but its insistent need to explain why characters are the way they are (like how Cruella got the last name De Vil) garnered many eye rolls. While not exactly a comedy, I couldn’t help but notice how dry this film felt at times, unable to match the enthralling imagery on screen outside of cliches.
For the most part the film is competently shot, with some pretty impressive, sweeping “one-takes”. The special effects can be hit or miss, as the lighting makes it painfully obvious when a green screen is behind our characters. An element of CGI that was surprisingly decent were the trio’s two dogs, Buddy and Wink. While not aways entirely convincing, their presence never really took me out of the film as we swap between a real dog and a fake dog when needed. Outside of the technical visuals, the films shines through its wardrobes and fashion statements. The bombastic, creatively designed outfits Cruella dons were created by Jenny Beavins, a two-time Oscar winner for Best Wardrobe. Each costume is stylish, bold and inspired. If you were going to center a film around fashion you better know what you are doing, and Beavin’s involvement at least does justice to the industry and keeps our leads looking stylish. When it comes to the soundtrack, the film boasts an impressive list of terrific rocks songs from many great artists. Despite the great track list, the licensed songs are used so often and in such on-the-nose ways that they quickly became one of the more annoying parts of the film. The needle dropping feels unnecessary, aiming to elicit a “hey I know this song” response rather than making it a worthwhile addition to the story outside of coincidental lyrics.
Despite apparently being set during a pivotal cultural shift, the film seems to wear its punk image without really making a comment on the ideas behind the movement. While there’s some small connections between Cruella’s own rebellious nature going against the prim and proper establishment, it doesn’t really go beyond any of the safe, “counter culture” movies that studios, including Disney, have put out in the past. That’s the biggest takeaway I have from this film; it’s safe. Even with its stylish visual flair, the film can’t seem to break past beyond the artificial, factory-made feel that Disney has unfortunately found itself replicating time and time again. An attempt was at least made to stray away from the source material to give a new approach to an iconic character, but the end product turns out to be a predictable and messy attempt at an anti-hero origin story that feels held back by its on limitations. The only thing we can do now is buckle up, settle in and try not to go insane as we prepare for what is sure to be a longstanding trend of mature, first name titled origin stories for characters we really don’t need to learn more about.
Can’t wait for CHERNABOG, the origin story for the demon from Fantastia‘s “Night on Bald Mountain” segment that reveals he’s actually a pretty cool guy.
The De Vil
The black and white color mantra associated with Cruella can be enjoyed at any time of year! Since we are in the full swing of summer, we’ve concocted this black and white spin on a the classic margarita, made with delicious coconut and made dazzling by a rim of black salt. Throw a cherry in there for a little color, and you have a creamy, tasty drink that makes a statement! Have a few of these, staple some newspapers to your clothes, and get ready to have a devilishly good time!
- 3.5oz cream of coconut
- 2oz tequila
- 1/2oz lime juice
- 1/2oz triple sec
- 1/2 cup ice
- Rim: Black salt
- Garnish: Cherry
- Rim a cocktail glass with a lime wedge, then coat the rim with the black salt.
- Add ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth.
- Pour drink into prepared glass.
- Garnish with cherry.