Cruella Review

Disney’s recent fixation with remaking their beloved animated films into live-action features has been met with a mixed reception. To be fair, not all of these live-action remakes have missed the mark (I rather enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin). But Disney turning the idea of remaking their animated legacy as live-action films into a kind of sub-genre seems superfluous. Disney’s animated films are (mostly) considered timeless, very few of them are actually asking for a remake. And with the possible exception of the aforementioned Jungle Book, I don’t think any of these live-action remakes have been as good as the animated movies they’re adapting.

Interestingly, in 2021 Disney released Cruella, a live-action film about the villainous Cruella de Vil character from 101 Dalmatians. I say that’s interesting for two reasons: the first reason is that Disney already made a live-action remake of that movie in 1996 which starred Glenn Close as Cruella. The second reason (and perhaps as a consequence of the first reason) is that 2021’s Cruella isn’t really a remake of 101 Dalmatians, but an origin story for the Cruella de Vil character, with Emma Stone in the title role.

Personally, I don’t think Cruella de Vil needed an origin story. But to be fair, Cruella is actually a pretty entertaining movie. Though I’m not too sure who its intended audience was meant to be.

Cruella is set in 1970s London (the change in decade is a notable alteration from the animated original, seeing as that film was released in 1961). A young girl born with half-black, half-white hair named Estella has a gift for fashion, but has a notorious mean streak, with her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) giving her the moniker ‘Cruella’ to address the less ideal half of her personality. When Estella’s behavior lands her in trouble, her mother hopes to transfer her to a better school, but lacks the money to do so. So Catherine stops by the notorious Hellman Hall to ask for a loan from her old friend and former employer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). While there, Estella is chased by the Baroness’ three dalmatians, who end up knocking Catherine off a cliffside balcony to her death…

Before I go on, I have to stop and address this. Disney movies often feature the death of a parent or guardian, going all the way back to Bambi. Usually, these moments are appropriately sad and meaningful. But I gotta say, death by dalmatian pushing someone off a cliff… now THAT’S a new one. And is this supposed to justify Cruella’s disdain for dalmatians down the road or something? As if someone hating dogs could ever be justified.

As ridiculous as this moment is, the story does pick up. So let’s move on.

Estella, now an orphan, flees Hellman Hall, accidentally leaving behind the necklace her mother passed down to her. She ends up meeting two orphaned boys, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and she becomes something of their surrogate sister. The three grow up living as conmen and petty thieves. One day, on her birthday, Estella is gifted an entry-level job at a department store by Jasper and Horace, as they believe Estella is too talented and deserves better than what life with them can provide.

Though the job isn’t much, it opens the door for Estella’s dreams. Eventually, she winds up getting a job as a designer for none other than the Baroness herself. Though her dreams seem to be coming true on paper, the reality of it is much less of a dream, as the Baroness rules her empire with an iron fist. While Estella seems to manage the hardships (and verbal abuse) for a while, her attitude shifts when she realizes the Baroness has her mother’s long-lost necklace. Estella enlists the help of Jasper and Horace – as well as their dogs Buddy and Wink – to try to steal the necklace back (Estella’s argument being that the necklace is technically hers), which eventually escalates into a rivalry with the Baroness. Estella will stop at nothing to bring the Baroness’ empire down, both from the inside and outside of it, adopting her old moniker of ‘Cruella’ when she starts a rival fashion company of her own. But the deeper the rivalry goes, the more the Cruella persona begins to take over Estella’s life.

The film basically plays out like The Devil Wears Prada taken to the extreme. And to be perfectly honest, Cruella ultimately is a fun movie, due in no small part to its cast, Emmas Stone and Thompson in particular elevating their characters and their rivalry. And it’s an appropriately fun movie to look at, due to its emphasis on fashion as well as its setting. I was actually surprised in how much I ended up enjoying Cruella and how engrossed I got in the rivalry between its titular anti-heroine and the Baroness. With that said, there are still a few questionable elements in the film.

First and foremost, try as it might, Cruella can’t quite justify why Cruella de Vil needed an origin story (other than to separate this film from the 1996 live-action remake, I guess). During many of the earlier scenes of the movie, whenever Estella was getting a tongue-lashing from the Baroness, I couldn’t help but think the movie could have worked just fine if Cruella had been in the Baroness’ role, and Estella could have instead been the character Anita from the animated film. Seeing as Cruella and Anita were described as ‘schoolmates’ in the 1961 original, changing that history to that of boss and employee would at least explain the mysterious age gap between the two characters from the animated film. That’s certainly not a knock on Emma Stone’s Cruella, of course. It just seems like the movie could have cut out the middle man.

Anita does show up in the film (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), as a gossip columnist who ends up helping Cruella in her schemes against the Baroness. And if you’re wondering, her future husband Roger shows up as well (Kayvan Novak), as the Baroness’ lawler.

Maybe the reason Disney opted for an origin story for Cruella was that it was the only way to make a movie about Cruella and still have the audience root for her? Cruella de Vil was always one of Disney’s most popular villains, but she’s one of the least likable of the lot when you think about it (her goal in the animated film was to skin a bunch of puppies to make a fur coat, after all). They couldn’t exactly make a movie about Cruella as depicted in the animated film and still expect the audience to cheer for her. I guess the origin story was Disney’s way of having their cake and eating it too. But, like Maleficent, it does make me wonder how fans of the character would take to the film, if they had to change Cruella so much in order to make her the central character (though the results here are much better than they were in Maleficent, and at least in this movie Cruella’s personality ends up closer to her animated counterpart by the end, whereas Maleficent never did in either of her live-action films).

Maybe some fans of Cruella de Vil will like the movie, and maybe some won’t. But I don’t think younger fans of 101 Dalmatians will much care for it. I guess, to be fair, the film is rated PG-13, so it is probably made with older kids and teenagers in mind. But that again makes me wonder why Disney would adapt 101 Dalmatians in order to make such a movie. Cruella is a movie for teenagers based on a movie for kids about that movie’s villain in which that villain is now a good guy. I guess it’s not impossible to make that odd concoction work, and I have to admit that Cruella does mostly work. But I think it still suffers a bit of awkwardness from that identity crises (do I need to point out “death by getting knocked off a cliff by a dalmatian” again?).

I don’t think Cruella reaches the same heights as the Jungle Book or Aladdin remakes, but it’s maybe a better movie than you’d expect. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson really make the film engaging, and the supporting cast help carry things as well (I especially like Hauser as Horus, who is the most faithful to the animated character).

Cruella is a curious little oddity for Disney fans, and a fun movie in its own right. It may be a bit ridiculous at times, but it’s a pleasant surprise.

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One-Hundred and One Dalmatians Review

The 1960s were an interesting time for Walt Disney Animation Studios, namely because during the entire decade, the studio only released three new feature films (the slowest decade on record for Disney, though re-releases of past films helped keep things stable). Though many consider the “silver age” of Disney animation to have ended with Sleeping Beauty in 1959, the fact that Disney’s output in the 1960s were so few – as well as being the last batch to be released during Walt Disney’s lifetime – often sees them lumped into Disney’s silver age as well. I’m inclined to agree with notion. Although there is a rougher quality to the animation in Disney’s trilogy of features in the 1960s (which began with One-Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961 and continued with The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book), the films themselves are on par with Silver Age Disney films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and certainly better than the “Bronze Age” that was to follow in the 1970s. Though maybe not one of the great Disney features, One-Hundred and One Dalmations is an endearing addition to the Disney canon in its own right.

It also may just be the most straightforward Disney film in terms of plot: it’s about a group of Dalmatian puppies who are kidnapped, and their family’s (both canine and human) quest to rescue them. It really is a simple plot, but it makes for an entertaining film, not to mention it inspired one of the all-time great Simpsons parodies.

If you need a little more detail, the film begins with Pongo, an adult Dalmatian who lives with his “pet” human, Roger. Pongo feels Roger deserves better than the life of a bachelor, and plans to find him a significant other (though the fact that Pongo only scouts women with female dogs makes me question who the search is really for). Pongo chooses an attractive woman walking her own Dalmatian (naturally), and sees her enter the park. So Pongo goads Roger into a walk in the park, and arranges an “accidental” meeting between Roger and the woman, whose name is Anita. Sure enough, the two humans fall in love and get married, and Pongo falls for Anita’s Dalmatian, Perdita, and they get…dog-married, I guess.

Some time later, Perdita is pregnant with a litter of puppies. Roger and Anita are approached by the wealthy, fur-coat loving former schoolmate of Anita, Cruella De Vil (how she was Anita’s schoolmate despite the glaringly obvious age difference, I’m not sure). Cruella is interested in buying the entire litter of puppies when the day comes, but Roger mistrusts Cruella (even writing a song about how despicable she is, as Disney character wont to do), and denies Cruella the future puppies. This leads to a falling out with Cruella, who storms off in a rage.

Perdita eventually gives birth to fifteen puppies (awww!). Yes, despite the jokes people often make about the movie featuring a dog giving birth to ninety-nine puppies (even the aforementioned Simpsons episode cracks a joke on the subject), Perdita only gives birth to fifteen of them.

The family doesn’t have long to celebrate, however. One night, while Roger and Anita are out with Pongo and Perdita, a duo of hired goons make their way into the house, and kidnap all fifteen puppies!

Roger naturally suspects Cruella, but Scotland Yard has already investigated her and found nothing. With no leads, Roger and Anita are at a loss. So Pongo and Perdita are left to investigate things themselves, and use the “Twilight Bark” to spread news about their missing puppies to their fellow dogs (think the beacons between Gondor and Rohan from Lord of the Rings, but with dogs barking). This chain of barks spreads far and wide, eventually reaching the farmhouse of an Old English Sheepdog named Colonel and his friends, a horse named Captain, and a tabby cat named Sergeant Tibbs. The militantly-named farm animals soon discover a dark secret. The two dog-nappers, Jasper and Horace, are staying at the seemingly abandoned De Vil family estate, Hell Hall (geez, at least try to hide your malevolence, Cruella!). Not only are Pongo and Perdita’s litter being held captive by Jasper and Horace, but an additional eighty-four Dalmatian puppies as well! It turns out, Cruella has hired the bumbling jailbirds to hide out with the puppies in the once-abandoned house, and as soon as the dogs are big enough, Cruella plans on having the dogs skinned to make a Dalmatian fur coat! Most Disney villains are pretty evil, but you usually love to hate them, because they’re cool sorcerers like Jafar or charismatic pirates like Captain Hook, but Cruella just wants to straight-up skin dogs for a fur coat! That’s pretty messed up!

Anyway, the Twilight Bark makes its way back to Pongo and Perdita, who set off to save the puppies with the help of Colonel and his cohorts, and even a few other dogs as well.

Again, it’s arguably the most straightforward plot in any Disney movie. It doesn’t feature any real moral lessons, plot twists, magical happenings, sub-plots, or much of anything outside of the main quest of “puppies kidnapped. Rescue them.”

I don’t mean that in a negative way though. It’s incredibly simple, but One-Hundred and One Dalmatians is an undeniably fun and entertaining film. The animation is certainly rougher than it was in Disney’s previous film, Sleeping Beauty (this was the era where you could see more of the sketch lines in the characters during the final animation), but the characters’ movements are still fluid and detailed. Less forgivable however, are a few frames of animation that are recycled (Cruella can apparently only glare out her car window one very specific way). The lack of songs is also notable, with Roger’s little number about Cruella – while fun – being the only song in the film, unless you count the Kanine Krunchies jingle (which I don’t). Even just another song or two may have spruced things up.

Though One-Hundred and One Dalmatians may suffer from the negative trend of old Disney films not having interesting main characters, it’s a little more forgivable here considering most of the characters are dogs. And, well, dogs are innately more likable than humans. The villains are kind of fun though, even if a dog lover like myself can only see them as the evilest Disney villains. Jasper and Horace are like the proto-Wet Bandits, being bumbling criminals who exist solely for the audience to laugh at their misfortune, while Cruella herself – while maybe not quite stacking up to the most memorable Disney villains – leaves an impression with her gaudy wardrobe and in-your-face personality.

One-Hundred and One Dalmatians may not boast the depth to make it one of Disney’s best animated films, but it has a deserved confidence and charm about it that makes it hard to resist. Plus, it has so many dogs!

 

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