Cruella de Vil’s first-ever onscreen appearance must be one of the most memorable sequences in Disney history. From the 1961 animated film “101 Dalmatians,” the scene opens with a song warning the audience: “If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing ever will!” A spiky silhouette rises from behind a glass door as Cruella is revealed, her spidery frame enveloped by a black and white fur coat. She waltzes inside the house and waves a long cigarette as she discusses puppy-buying and puppy-skinning. Though she leaves less than two minutes later, her brief yet unsettling presence completely disrupts the film. It’s an electrifying introduction, and it’s the reason why she’s one of the most famous Disney villains. Though the new Disney live-action film “Cruella” harnesses the same vein of eccentricity, it never quite manages to surpass its predecessor.
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!
“Cruella” belongs to two of the most popular Hollywood trends in recent years. Like “The Lion King,” “Mulan” and “Cinderella” remakes, it has become a part of the industry’s strategy of capitalizing on nostalgia by producing spin-offs, remakes and reboots of beloved film pieces. And similar to “Joker” or “Maleficent,” it’s another entry in the “thriving genre of villain revisionism.” The two trends converge to narrate Cruella de Vil’s origin story. In the first half of the film, it is revealed that Cruella becomes an orphan after an encounter with Dalmatians kills her mother. She grows up roaming the streets of London and eventually becomes an employee of the Baroness, the ruthless queen of the high fashion establishment. Though at first Cruella tries to play by the rules of the Baroness, a series of revelations convinces her that she must destroy the Baroness at any cost.
It’s “Oliver Twist” meets “The Devil Wears Prada” in 1970s London. At its best, the unlikely combination of genres and styles works in the film’s favor, and the cinematography is forgettable but still well-executed. For example, during Cruella’s first impromptu fashion show, the camerawork successfully plays up the non-naturalistic and heightened universe of the film.
Though the excessive amount of inane needle drops brings the shortcomings of “Suicide Squad” to mind, the editing is skillful and infuses the first half of the movie with excitement and vitality. But the best thing about “Cruella” is how it’s as fashion-obsessed as its title character. From lavish excess to punk eccentricity, each of the 80+ outfits is a delight to the eyes. With their clashing styles and dazzling performances, it was thrilling to watch Cruella and the Baroness appear onscreen at the same time.
However, this is not enough to save the film from its failures. “Cruella” lasts a little more than two hours; on first watch it’s entertaining to see the plot twist into increasingly nonsensical shapes, but it barely holds up on a second viewing. One gets the impression that it could have been half as long and twice as good, a feat that could have been achieved by dropping plenty of unimportant subplots and scenes. For instance, Anita Darling’s plotline is hardly given any attention, and her character is a textbook example of the tired trope of the token black friend.
Perhaps the film’s biggest mistake is its desperate attempt to redeem its main character. The Cruella that Emma Stone portrays is not a villain but a flawed woman with a quirky temperament. She has a heart of gold! She’s a girlboss! She doesn’t kill any dogs! In fact, she loves dogs! And they love her too! The film trips over itself to make Cruella a nuanced character when her main appeal is actually her sadistic, selfish and cartoonishly evil nature.
Instead, those diva sensibilities are given to the Baroness — a choice that oddly flattens Cruella into an underdog. Disney took on a harrowing challenge in attempting to prop up an entire movie based on a gleefully unlikeable character. But “Cruella” is no “Joker” when it comes to its ability to create empathy with the famous antagonist, nor does it provide the villainess with a complex array of emotions that the audience can truly understand.
The general reaction to “Cruella” could be summed up by a shrug. One critic pointed out that it “could’ve been worse,” whereas another more favorable review from The Sydney Morning Herald stated that the film would “at least succeed in distracting you.” Its harshest critics have gone so far as to call it “an atrocity with neither purpose nor soul.” Even its kindest reviewers have to admit that with the lack of sincerely intense emotions, it was “easy enough to watch but hard to care much about.”
No moment of the film holds up to the original “101 Dalmatians,” just like none of the recent Disney reboots have held up to their predecessors, and perhaps that’s the point. As Simran Hans wrote in a 2019 analysis regarding the decline of creativity, the endless parade of spinoffs, remakes and reimaginings is designed to be low-risk and low-effort. By recycling the same stories, the Walt Disney Company is able to reap easy profits, since its enormous share of the U.S. market (40% in 2019) allows its movies to thrive regardless of their quality.
As a result, it feels like mainstream studios are keeping their audiences in a purgatory of reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels and reimaginings. They release products that are far from being unsuccessful and even further from being beloved. We have yet to learn if these remakes will have the same, if any, level of success with the next generation. A failure to connect with the audience would be a failure to profit for the studios, which could point us toward the end of the remake era. But for now, it seems like the future holds more releases like “Cruella”: bland, deeply average movies that capitalize on the cherished childhood memories of previous enjoyment.