I come down hard on Disney for numerous reasons (that it as a corporate entity owns Pixar, Marvel, & Lucasfilm— also Fox and ITS properties; controls 40% of the media market, and the fact that I can never escape word of its new releases no matter how hard I try) but the thing I come down on hardest is its live-action sector: Disney’s brand of animated classics now being repackaged for modern audiences. From a business standpoint, live-action remakes, sequels, and spin-offs are a no-brainer – established properties that have greater odds of securing an audience. Admittedly, these attempts can yield something truly magical as, say, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella or Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. But more often than not, the efforts ring hollow like Alice in Wonderland, and whatever Through the Looking Glass was, or Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, last year’s Mulan…
Needless to say, I wasn’t holding my breath for Cruella, Disney’s latest live-action movie that’s also a *stops to catch breath* villain spinoff and 101 Dalmatians prequel. But to my surprise, Cruella is immensely fun. So much fun that it makes a surprisingly strong case for, and I shall live to regret saying this, more of its kind?
To be clear, more of Cruella’s kind, not the lifeless live-action lot that Disney’s been churning out lately.
Perhaps it’s small a compliment to say but I’ll say it anyway: Cruella is Disney’s best live-action movie so far. (And, it must be said, a better villain origin story than JOKER.) Cruella works simply because it embraces the unexplored territory of its title-character’s origins rather than relying on Cruella’s predetermined destination as villain.
It’s like a lightbulb went off at Disney HQ when they realized they can tell any story they want with a new POV and star in the role, plus a vibrant new era to play with. Emma Stone is free to be endearing and likeable as the budding young Estella, something Stone has as an actor in spades. Yes, she’ll eventually become Cruella de Vil. WE GET IT. But the names and monikers are almost beside the point as Stone goes head-to-head with a magnificent adversary in Emma Thompson like a veritable battle of “Who’s the Most Devious Emma of Them All?” (Thompson’s no-fucks-given attitude in this movie is damn aspirational.) I don’t care who Cruella will become later down the line; I care what she’ll do next to get out on top.
Cruella boasts the kind of freedom that eluded Disney’s prior live-action efforts. Too many of them largely go through the motions of what came before, occasionally writing newer scenes, but always sticking to the same songs and familiar character beats as literal (sometimes too literal) adaptations. Disney’s M.O. of late demonstrates the limits of the ill-conceived fan cry, “JUST FOLLOW THE SOURCE MATERIAL.” Do just that and you get 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. (Incoming announcement of Beauty and the Beast’s evil enchantress getting her own spinoff in 3…2…)
It helps tremendously that Cruella has its own killer style separating it from the live-action crop. Screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara conceive Cruella like a freakin’ gangster pic. I half expected to see the head of a dalmatian in the Baroness’ bedroom like a continued Disney ode to The Godfather. Director Craig Gillespie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis even shoot the movie like an extension of Goodfellas’ iconic tracking shot.
Sure, you can spot the digital blurs meant to create the effect of a continuous shot all throughout the movie, but the fluidity of camera and longer shots fixated on the movie’s dueling stars is what makes this 2-hour affair feel so rock ‘n roll. It’s like a rock song that indulges in unwieldy guitar solos here and there but never forgets its core melody. Cruella has an appropriately retro soundtrack to boot, and the needle drops are all the more impressive by working solely as a background component (like a radio playing in the character’s heads) and not something that the film relies on to give it a personality or an edge.
Gillespie swerves us into this lush fashion world, into 1970s London, and a culture on the verge of a punk rock revolution. I don’t know shit about fashion but it is a lot of fun watching Cruella upstage the Baroness at her own game. (And I don’t know where to check this box on paper, but my sexuality is Emma Stone on a lift chanting, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”) It’s intoxicating to get swept up in, like an upside-down version of what made 2015’s Cinderella such a lavish retelling with immaculate sets and costumes on display.
Perhaps the biggest mistake Disney tends to make with its live-action adaptations is favoring “realism” over fantasy, like preferring photo-realistic animals over expressive ones in its Lion King remake. Since these aren’t cartoons anymore, Disney doubles down on what’s “real” in translating over to a live-action canvas; what a flesh-and-blood human would realistically do in these situations, and the sort. But I am not watching these movies for authenticity or realism.
Gimme Emma Stone with a bullshit British accent wherein she speaks like she’s better than everyone else. Gimme dalmatians pushing Cruella’s mom off a cliff like Thanos trying to get the Soul Stone. Gimme a bonkers twist of the Baroness turning out to be Cruella’s biological mother. Such a reveal is par for the course for these stories, but Cruella builds the conflict to such an operatic high that the conflict feels, dare I say, Shakespearean? Emma Stone even has her own soliloquy right out of a tragic play.
Just because this is live-action does NOT mean the cartoonish aspects of the story should go out the window. Why not lean into those especially? That’s what makes these villain odysseys feel alive and distinctive over gothic eyeliner and maniacal laughter. The cartoonier these A-list actors get to be, the BETTER.
Cruella nails the tone of the live-action villain saga that Disney has been trying to get off the ground since Maleficent. Something that loosely plays in the sandbox of an animated classic, but also something geared toward an older crowd short of throwing up a middle finger on screen.
Personally, I think these villain chapters will run into other problems as more of them get the prequel treatment. At the end of the day these are stories about heroes, not villains. Because fleshing out these “villain” backstories unduly provides for the kind of empathy that didn’t exist with these one-note characters prior.
Take the upcoming Gaston prequel as an example, a no-brainer as Luke Evans’ Gaston was the sole highlight of the Beauty and the Beast remake. (Yes I sound very critical for someone who wrote a positive review on the movie, but I was younger then and full of hope!) Gaston, of course, is also the villain. How likable can he be if we know he’ll end up catcalling and harassing Belle on the provincial streets of Villeneuve? Will Gaston’s spinoff try to explain and thereby justify his actions i.e. he suffers crippling PTSD from the Seven Years War, or his father treated women this way and that’s why he’s a misogynist on top of a narcissist, etc.
Stone’s Cruella de Vil may be the litmus test for that likeability. The only villainous thing she’s done so far is that she’s a hardass of a boss who subjects her poor lads to brutal working conditions and unrealistic quotas to meet; Jasper, Horace, Artie, and John ought to unionize sooner rather than later. (Jeff Bezos villain prequel when?) Sure, Cruella’s adoptive mom straight up got murdered by some dalmatians, and the once poor black and white-haired orphan had dreams of being a fashion designer. But how much are we willing to forgive of an heiress who has a fondness for fur coats like all the makings of an aspiring dog killer? This is the storybook canon, folks. Emma Stone refusing to donate to the ASPCA or vandalizing a local dog shelter would really be something, even for a Disney movie.
Cruella otherwise is framed as a kind of superhero replete with her own glasses-wearing alter ego. Heck, she even escapes the doomsday clutches of her villainous overlord of a mother and is smuggled out of one social class and cast into the depths of another. Through a retelling like this, we undoubtedly have our protagonist – protagonists traditionally being characters we root for, so how much longer do we root for or cheer YAS KWEEN for Cruella knowing 101 Dalmatians is the endpoint? Or will Disney truly do something bold and say to hell with canon and establish anew?
Cruella 2 is on the way, and the upcoming Gaston prequel ensures (threatens?) that Disney is not backing down on its live-action villain front. At this point, Maleficent is due to pop up in any one of these sagas to recruit foes for a Disney Villain Initiative. Then we’ll really be screwed.