An overblown and unnecessary waste of $200 million, Disney’s Cruella encapsulates everything that is wrong with modern studio moviemaking and the IP-driven approach that the Mouse House is responsible for cultivating.
Some time around the late 2000s, Disney decided that it no longer wanted to make movies with modest budgets, and that instead, it would devote all its resources to producing only tentpoles. And so it set about purchasing everything from Lucasfilm to Marvel, and then, eventually, all of Fox. And while this plan has proven to be very successful, it is solely responsible for the franchise-heavy filmmaking that most studios are now focussing on.
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Cruella, a prequel to the live-action 101 Dalmatians (itself a remake), is a film that absolutely nobody was asking for. And yet, it exists. The recent announcement that a sequel had been greenlit is only partially a clever PR move by the company, which is in the middle of a public legal tussle with Scarlett Johansson. Mostly, it’s an indication of just how tragically the industry has driven itself into a creative corner. A sequel to Cruella is apparently a more attractive proposition to the studio than something that costs half as much but would be doubly memorable.
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Because in the two-odd months since I watched this movie, it has all but evaporated from my mind. The only thing that has resisted the pull of irrelevance is the performance of Paul Walter Hauser. He is, perhaps, this generation’s Steve Buscemi or John Goodman, equally comfortable at playing supporting roles as he is at playing leads.
He is the standout performer in Cruella, a film that stars two Emmas with three Oscars between them. As the comic relief character Horace, Hauser goes hard, settling on a semi-deadpan that is not only regularly funny, but also made me wonder why director Craig Gillespie didn’t ask the rest of the cast to match his energy. Instead, Gillespie blows what seems like the majority of the film’s budget on endless needle-drops and CGI dogs.
The inherent goofiness of the plot demands a certain level of camp, but neither Cruella the film nor the character is willing to commit. Instead, Gillespie aims for a faux-edginess that wears off almost immediately. To compensate, he has characters say things like, “You have a bit of an extreme side,” to Cruella’s face, as if the film is afraid to actually show just how extreme her cruelty can be. As it turns out, she’s just an oddball dealing with a traumatic past — a routine-enough backstory, but for Disney, positively risque.
Emma Stone delivers a strangely distant performance as Estella/Cruella, who runs away to London after her mother is gruesomely killed by a bunch of dogs in the opening sequence. She’s immediately taken in by a couple of kids who live by themselves in a loft that looks it like would probably cost millions of pounds. The two boys invite Estella to join their merry band, and together, they hustle their way up the social ladder.
Some years later, the trio, now having developed a strong platonic bond — this is a Disney movie, so romance isn’t allowed to complicate their dynamic — Estella finds work at the city’s most prestigious fashion label, where her talent is immediately spotted by the owner, Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson).
What unfolds is a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and The Favourite, and to understand the level of complacency that went into creating this movie, all you to know is that Disney actually enlisted Aline Brosh McKenna and Tony McNamara to contribute to Cruella’s script. Do these names ring a bell? Well, McKenna wrote The Devil Wears Prada, and McNamara co-wrote The Favourite. It’s almost a miracle that Todd Phillips’ name doesn’t pop up in the credits, because along with those two films, the next biggest reference point seems to be Joker.
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