It seems that when a Hollywood studio runs out of ideas for movie sequels, they turn their focus and attention to prequels. In particular, origin stories.
We’ve seen it a lot in the Superhero genre with movies like Batman Begins (2005).
Disney decided to cash in, by doing the origin story of the Maleficent character from their animated classic Sleeping Beauty (1959).
I’m referring to the live action films Maleficent (2014) and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil(2019) both starring Angelina Jolie.
They followed the approach of the Broadway play Wicked, telling an empathetic backstory to a character that eventually became terrifyingly, monstrous evil.
And so, it was only a matter of time that the Cruella character from Disney’s animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and live action remake 101 Dalmatians (1996) and sequel 102 Dalmatians (2000), both starring Glenn Close, would get the Maleficent live-action, origin story treatment.
When I first saw the movie trailers starring Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, I shook my head but quickly realized that I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Why not a movie about a deranged woman who wanted to turn dogs into designer clothing?
How did someone like that ever manage to become so messed up and maniacal? I had to admit, I was curious.
Cruella begins at the very beginning, with her birth. She narrates the story casually mentioning that she is no longer alive. It’s a great attention getting device.
What quickly follows is the recurring Disney story element involving the tragic loss of a parent. Old Walt knew how to rip the hearts out of his audiences both young and old. Just ask Bambi, Dumbo or Simba from The Lion King.
To this day, I always felt that Walt Disney was a bit of a sadist who delighted in the emotional scars he inflicted over the years.
But, back to our story. Orphaned and abandoned, our heroine, whose name is Estella, finds herself in the swinging streets of London in the early Sixties and is soon in the company of two little boys, Jasper and Horace, who manage to survive by being thieves and pickpockets.
Yes, this is right out of the Oscar-winning movie Oliver! (1968). But as it turns out, their hard knock life is made a little more tolerable thanks to the companionship of Estelle’s adorable puppy, Buddy, and Horace’s one-eyed pup, Wink.
Together, they manage to create their own cozy little crime family.
Of course, Estella’s latent talents as a fashion designer lead her to a job as a lowly assistant to The Baroness (Emma Thompson) who is the monstrous matriarch of her own fashion empire.
If this is sounding like the basic plot to The Devil Wears Prada (2006), it is. Right down to the clone of Stanley Tucci’s character Nigel. I’m guessing that Tucci was unavailable due to the taping of his HBO series about Italian Cuisine, but Mark Strong does a great job recreating this supportive male character who has Estelle’s back.
The character dynamics are so close here that it’s tempting to rename this Cruella movie something like The Devil Wears Dalmatian. Or maybe, just De Vil Wears Dalmatian (plugging in Cruella’s last name).
A good portion of this movie gets bogged down in the boiling hatred that develops between these two women. They turn out to be a couple of mean girls.
And what follows is a lot of bitchy backstabbing and hurtful head games in a world of high stakes haute couture. So much, that the bare bones story becomes tiresome.
Director Craig Gillespie seems aware of the problem.
His solution is to prop up the sagging plot with the inclusion of a few dozen perky pop songs ranging from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones to Blondie.
The songs are great. It’s a soundtrack album that I wouldn’t mind having.
From a storytelling perspective, Cruella faces the task of explaining how a sweet faced, enormously gifted, spoiled brat of a child, could become the villain we came to hate in that old cartoon classic.
There is a psychotic, Jekyll-Hyde element to her bi-polar character, reflecting an internal struggle between good (Estella) and evil (
Emma Stone seems to be having fun playing this conflicted, schizophrenic role. Her signature, silent-era, starlet eyes capture the craziness churning beneath the surface.
Like Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, Emma Stone’s Cruella is both weirdly beautiful and wildly unhinged.
Emma Thompson’s Baroness is delightfully loathsome and despicable, a heartless, soulless creature willing to destroy anything or anyone that gets in her way. It’s a chillingly icy performance.
But despite the star talent, strong supporting characters and Oscar-worthy costumes and make-up, Cruella never manages to deliver the kind of sparks implied in the movie trailer.
It’s a movie made by movie lovers who decided to sprinkle in their favorite scenes and cinematic devices.
The mysterious Titanic-like pendant; the famous skylight shot from Citizen Kane; the heist element from Mission Impossible; and a jaw-dropping, climactic reveal right out of Star Wars that you had probably figured out ten minutes into Cruella.
From a technical standpoint, Cruella is a quality Disney film all the way. It’s beautifully shot and edited.
Its failure is with the script and the telling of a story so intent on making a scary classic movie villainess somehow empathetic.
The argument is that there is so much we just never knew; that she was perhaps more misunderstood than monstrous.
In the end, the character development should connect the dots, taking us from the somewhat loveable damaged goods of a girl to the fearful character we remembered, feared and hated in the previous Dalmatian movies.
But that doesn’t happen.
Like the more recent Maleficent movies, we are shown a story meant to humanize a character that we formerly considered to be pure evil.
It’s the same reexamination and reinterpretation of a classic villain that we saw in the Broadway hit Wicked.
The backstory may be an interesting one. But, in the end, it just doesn’t connect with the villainess who resides in our collective memory.
Some things are probably best left alone.
Cruella opens simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access for a one-time additional fee on May 28.