Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated back catalogue has now expanded so much as to come full circle: returning to the ghoulish villain Cruella de Vil, famously played by Glenn Close in the two 101 Dalmatians remakes in 1996 and 2000. This time around, however, we find ourselves deep in prequel territory. Emma Stone plays a much younger version of the character, and there are considerably fewer dalmatians to be found.
Disney in the 21st century is a ouroboros-like cannibalistic swamp of sequels, spin-offs, and remakes. Previously one of the most active sources in Hollywood for family-friendly mainstream pop culture, today anything that is not re-imagined or re-fashioned is simply purchased wholesale like Marvel or Star Wars and put to immediate use. It has earned the company record profits for sure, but with each passing year Disney feels less inspiring and magical and more plastic and calculated. Their feature film output was almost always geared towards generating merchandise and theme park rides, but today the films themselves feel like the toys and roller coasters that they used to inspire. There are still highly enjoyable films in the offing, and a small measure of original work from time to time, but the status quo really is beginning to drag. I personally remain an enormous fan of Disney’s oeuvre, but I have noticed I am revisiting more and more of their earlier, more original works at the expense of the new.
Compounding my apprehension is the fact that Cruella is a prequel – one of my least favourite kinds of story. All things being equal, a prequel is a narratively redundant exercise in delivering trivia. By definition it does not go anywhere that its audience has not already seen, and if any of the additional back story or depth it might provide actually mattered it would have been included in the original text. Star Wars is the perfect case in point: three movie prequels and more than 130 episodes later, the Clone Wars feel less awe-inspiring and epic now than they did as one line of dialogue in 1977. Some people argue the merits of a few specific examples, like The Godfather Part II or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but Temple of Doom‘s story is so hermetically sealed that most of its audience did not realise it was a prequel and the prequel elements of The Godfather Part II exist to reflect and inform a parallel sequel narrative contained in the same movie.
So, keeping all of that in mind: Craig Gillespie’s 2021 comedy caper Cruella is broadly entertaining and really rather good. At the same time it honestly feels that if it was rewritten to transform Emma Stone’s Cruella into an entirely original character and stripped of its One Hundred and One Dalmatians trappings, it could potentially have shifted from rather good to genuinely great. The talent is there, and what is provided is easy to recommend, but there remains that frustrating thought that the finished film is exasperatingly close to brilliance. Bad films may be dismissed; mediocre ones forgotten. An almost great movie rolls in the mind like a pebble in a shoe.
Orphaned as a child, Estella Miller (Emma Stone) grows up as part of a gang of petty criminals. When she fulfils a dream to work for the fashion diva Baroness Hellman (Emma Thompson), Estella is on the precipice of a new career – only to have it crashing down around her when the Baroness’ link to her childhood is revealed.
Cruella undertakes considerable work to develop a sympathetic protagonist, since the cultural shift since Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians means that while it was once despicable to murder puppies to make a coat it is now loathsome for Cruella to be working in animal fur at all. Aside from a few references and teases, murdering dogs is – in these more enlightened times – right out even for the bad guys. The film also justifies Cruella’s villainy and makes her sympathetic by the trusted methods of (a) giving her a tragic back story, and (b) making the film’s actual villain even more cruel and unpleasant. One of the strongest charms of the film is watching the two Emmas battle one another in the world of London’s fashion houses. Both do excellent and engaging work.
Weirdly one major influence on Cruella appears to be superhero movies. The dying parent, the dual identities – Estella works for the Baroness by day and fights her as Cruella by night – and the vivid costuming all eerily recall classical Hollywood films of the type. Cut Stone’s Cruella out of this film and pit her against Tim Burton’s Batman, and one would not be able to see the seams.
As a movie about haute couture, it is not surprising for the costume design to be absolutely stunning. Cruella is a visual marvel, with an enormous variety of dresses, coats, and boots to please even the fussiest of costuming devotees. Designer Jenny Beavan may as well start planning her look for Oscar night, because a nomination at least seems all-but-certain. She leans heavily on mid-1970s British fashion – particularly Vivienne Westwood – and it looks marvellous.
The musical soundtrack is also top-notch. It has gathered a bit of criticism for being a bit too on-the-nose and populist, featuring the likes of the Rolling Stones, Blondie, Queen, the Doors, and Electric Light Orchestra, but it is worth remembering that for the film’s target market this very well may be their first exposure to some of these bands and artists. Perhaps laid on a bit too thickly, it is nonetheless a pleasurable background to the action on screen.
Taken for what it is – and that is always important – Cruella is a stylish and engaging romp with strong performances and exceptional design. It does actually make something relatively fresh out of an old set of characters. Top of the deck for a studio of remakes and adaptations, however, is still evidence of a studio relying much too heavily on existing brands. Oh to see this effort put to something genuinely new.