DISCLAIMER: I was provided a review screener from Disney before its theatrical and Disney+ Premier Access release date on May 28th. Disney has not seen this review and only influenced my review of how I am not to spoil any aspect of the film.
In 2014, Disney started upon a new path for Walt Disney Pictures. Starting with Maleficent, the studio would be going back to Walt Disney Animation films and reinterpreting them for modern audiences. Seven years later, we’ve had reinterpretations of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, a pseudo-sequel to the Winnie the Pooh franchise, as well as sequels to the 2010 Alice in Wonderland Tim Burton film and Maleficent.
In those seven years and twelve films (of which I’ve seen nine), the formula of these remakes has shifted in interesting ways. With Maleficent, it went about crafting a story before the events of Sleeping Beauty. Then, in The Jungle Book, the film blended computer-generated animals and a child actor to tell a story closer to Richard Kipling’s book that eschewed the animated film’s musical tendencies (although there are multiple callbacks throughout the film). Beauty and the Beast tried going full theater kid, with gorgeous costumes, new renditions of the songs we know (with one new song making its way in), a motion-capture performance of Beast, CG castle servants, and dolling up the animated film for a live-action audience, even giving Beast and Belle backstories that were not previously explored in the original film. Christopher Robin tried something completely different. Instead of adapting the material one-to-one, the plot was much more about Christopher Robin and his journey from The Hundred Acre Wood into the real world as a family man working a corporate job he hates. Dumbo tried to ground the 1941 animated film’s plot into live-action, dropping the heavier elements of the plot to criticize Disney themselves. Aladdin introduced a cast who felt like they lived in Agrabah, which informed the plot as much more politically-driven fare, something Mulan also did. The Lion King and Lady and the Trump are basically the animated film adapted for live-action audiences.
Out of these, I think the best decision the live-action remakes of these bunch are the ones that tried to find a new story within the existing narrative framework of the animated film it’s based on. Namely, my favorite new spins are Christopher Robin, Maleficent, and Aladdin. The reason I like these new spins is that it’s not just trying to remake an animated film into live-action. Instead, what’s happening is that new spin forces creative thoughts about what a modern audience would like to see from a live-action version of the story they know.
Cruella forges a similar path to Maleficent. Instead of adapting the animated film or acting as a “spiritual” sequel to the Glenn Close adaptation, it looks at the villain behind the animated film and delves deep into her psyche and what drove her to hunt the dalmatians.
Is this new spin on the classic story worth the $30 Disney is asking to watch at home via Disney+ Premier Access, a trip out to your local movie theater, or should you wait until it becomes free to stream on Disney+ on August 27th? Well, that answer is a bit complicated for those who only have the $30 to spend, but I think it’s worth whatever you spend to see Cruella.
Out of the several highlights of Cruella, one of Walt Disney Pictures’ finest choices was hiring director Craig Gillespie right off his fantastic film, I, Tonya. Much of Cruella’s identity feels very much wrapped up in that same tone of a woman who is so close to the edge of villainy because of the society around her. There’s the sense that the titular character is toeing a line that she’s not sure if she should cross. Some may gawk at just how serious Gillespie treats a character whose last name is a wordplay on Devil with such seriousness, but I appreciated the tonal shift from the source material. Cruella is not trying to be a film made for children. It’s trying to tell the story of how an aspiring fashion designer becomes the most notorious villain in film history.
Likewise, the screenplay from Dana Fox (The Wedding Date, What Happens in Vegas, Ben and Kate) & Tony McNamara (The Favourite, The Great) who are working off a story by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, We Bought a Zoo, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey, Terra Nova) & Steve Zissis (Baghead, Cyrus, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, Togetherness, Her) treat Cruella de Vil and the other members of the cast with clear storylines that actually matter to the plot. I won’t say why for obvious reasons, but there is no wasted room in this script. For the first time in a big-budget film, I felt like each character had a solid argument for why they wanted (or didn’t want) something to happen in the story. The main highlights of the script are how much focus is cast on Cruella’s inner demons, how she wrestles with them, and how that affects her relationships with The Baroness, Jasper, and Horace, who also starred in Gillespie’s previous film, I, Tonya). Additionally, the influence of McKenna’s writing (specifically The Devil Wears Prada and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) is very much felt in Cruella’s career as a fashion designer and how unappreciated she sometimes feels.
This film has an excellent cast to boot. Emma Stone plays Estella “Cruella” de Vil. Emma Stone plays Cruella as this rebellious twentysomething, and it’s quite the intriguing choice. Stone gives Cruella a heart to where you care about her and want the best for her, even if Cruella herself doesn’t always make the best choices. On the opposite side of that same coin is Emma Thompson’s Baroness, where I think the direction was “do that thing you did in The Devil Wears Prada but notch up the sarcasm,” and hey, if it ain’t broke, you don’t have to fix it. Joel Fry’s Jasper could’ve been more of a voice within the film, but I liked how he served as a proxy for the audience within the film. Unfortunately, I would have loved to see Paul Walter Hauser’s Horace do something more than repeating the same line over and over again. His character seems a bit underutilized. I wish that there was more to his and the other supporting cast’s roles, as it feels like Kirby Howell-Baptist’s Anita Darling, Mark Strong’s John, Jon McCrea’s Artie, Kayvan Novak’s Roger, and Jamie Demetriou’s Gerald kind of shuffle on screen just to be shuffled right back off. It’s unfortunate, but I understand why.
Something I don’t understand is the need for the soundtrack. Outside of the need for Walt Disney Records to sell a soundtrack album, I don’t get why it’s here. Music doesn’t play as big of a part as the setting would make you believe. The only time I think I enjoyed the soundtrack in the film was when it played a part. The soundtrack is excellent and all, with Florence and the Machine, Nina Simone, Supertramp, Queen, Blondie, The Doors, Electric Light Orchestra, The Clash, and many more artists appearing, but it simply is something the film could’ve done without. Plus, Nicholas Britell’s score is brilliant and evokes the punk rock movement the soundtrack is trying to portray.
So, if you’re interested in Emma Stone, any incarnation of the 101 Dalmatians franchise, or just want to see a new big-budget movie, Cruella might just be the movie for you to see when it releases on Disney+ Premier Access and in theaters on May 28th.
Cruella releases on Disney+ Premier Access ($30 purchase in addition to an active Disney+ subscription needed to watch) and in theaters nationwide on May 28th.
Until next time!
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