With the release of “Cruella,” the origin story of the wicked Cruella de Vil starring Emma Stone, Disney added another live-action remake to their already extensive catalog. “Cruella” is the studio’s thirteenth remake in just six years. With this many adaptations under their belt, it is easy to see the trends that have developed in these films over time.
This era of live-action Disney films began in earnest in 2010 with the release of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” a dark retelling of the Disney classic as a modern fantasy epic. While the film captures Burton’s trademark wacky visuals, the plot deviates so wildly from the source material. Sadly, because of this, the film was poorly received. Also, the film’s tone was dark and serious, far different from the 1951 classic and Disney’s typical fare. This tone was not what many viewers were looking for or expecting from this movie.
A few years later, Disney released “Maleficent,” a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” that portrays Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) as a sympathetic hero rather than the evil villain from the original film. “Maleficent” is very similar to “Alice in Wonderland” as they both ditch the whimsy of their source material to create darker films with radically different takes. The film was successful at the box office, but received generally poor to mixed reviews due to viewers praising the visuals while again criticizing the plot for being convoluted and inauthentic to the original story.
Disney changed direction with a series of films each of the next three years, starting with “Cinderella” in 2015, followed by “The Jungle Book” in 2016 and “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017. These films stuck very closely to their source material both in tone and in story. Each film expanded on a few elements of the characters’ or worlds’ backstories while still remaining true to the spirit of the original. These films continued to innovate and impress visually and were box office hits, making each of them an undeniable success for Disney.
In 2018, Disney took a different step with “Christopher Robin,” a retelling of Winnie the Pooh as an aging Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) reconnects with Pooh and his other childhood friends. This movie was a completely original story that used the known and beloved characters to convey something new. The film was a success, showing that an exact recreation was not necessary.
Disney’s output exploded in 2019, with the studio releasing five different live-action remakes that year. Along with a sequel to “Maleficent,” Disney released “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Lady and the Tramp.” At this point, reception began to quickly turn on these movies. Each released to largely mixed or negative reviews as many viewers claimed that the films felt like “cash grabs” that didn’t try to do anything new. While Disney’s first few live-action adaptations were criticized for being too different from their source material, these more recent ones swung too far in the other direction, leading to movies that, while visually impressive, felt hollow and lifeless.
Disney doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. An adaptation of “Mulan” was released in Sept. 2020, again, to generally poor reviews. The studio also has many more adaptations in the works, including that of “The Little Mermaid” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
Disney’s newest live-action adaptation, “Cruella” toes the line between the best and worst of what their past remakes have offered. It’s not just a straight up and down remake of “101 Dalmatians,” but instead follows in the vein of “Maleficent” as it focuses on the story of the film’s villain. “Cruella” is different in that it is a prequel, having very little overlap with the events of the original film. By drawing on a new time frame, the film has the opportunity to tell a new story while still leaving the original narrative unchanged. “Cruella” also benefits from being based off of an older and less beloved film when compared to the likes of “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast,” allowing it to avoid getting bogged down in references to the source material.
“Cruella” boasts what few Disney remakes are yet to achieve: truly great performances. While there have been some strong performances in these movies in the past (Angelina Jolie in “Maleficent” and Will Smith in “Aladdin” come to mind), the previous films have focused much more on spectacle than character. Emma Stone is delightfully charismatic, switching between both sympathetic and dastardly at the drop of a hat. Stone is joined by Emma Thompson as The Baroness, a snappy fashion mogul who doesn’t hold back her biting insults. Watching the pair chew scenery is a blast, making the film fun throughout its whole runtime.
One strange part of “Cruella,” though, is the music. Nearly every scene is underscored with 60s and 70s music, the quantity of which only Disney could afford. The film is clearly trying to use the music in conjunction with the story’s parallels to the punk rock revolution, but the sheer abundance of them proves more annoying than impactful. The movie even boasts Oscar nominee Nicholas Britell doing the score, making the decision to opt for a “Guardians of the Galaxy” style pop music montage in most scenes rather than a score all the more baffling.
This movie still struggles a bit in the story department, too. The film follows Cruella’s journey from a child on the streets running cons to a fashion designer to the puppy killer we know from “101 Dalmations.” At times, there are several parts that are too cheesy to bear and sometimes it seems more focused on trying to be a heist movie than a villainous origin. Also, the plot can get a bit convoluted with all the different angles in which Cruella is being portrayed. The movie is often pretty ridiculous, but holds itself together by embracing its silliness in an attempt to overlook the more outrageous plot elements.
While there are some flaws, “Cruella” proves a unique entry in Disney’s live-action canon and demonstrates a potential new direction in Disney’s live-action films going forward.
“Cruella” is available to stream with premier access on Disney Plus.
By Ben Lindner