Cruella – 2021
Cruella - 2021: A surprising film that mostly slips past the things impeding it from succeeding is Emma Stone and Emma Thompson going mano-a-mano in a prequel for Disney's animated hit of 1961 (and 1996) 101 Dalmations.
For some time now, when Disney makes a feature film, what makes it to the screen is an overdone-ness that looks like one of those 1930's M-G-M movies that were made to not make money, but to "burnish the reputation" of the studio. Those high-class events (such as Romeo and Juliet, 1936) were loaded with stars and production values, based upon "a proven literary property" with a reputation that shifted the project out of mere box office money-grubbing into something to please the critics. This was in a time when many could still hold an attitude lingering from the birth of movies at the turn of the century when the cinematic arts were seen as shallow curiosities or worse, gross peep-shows. What Irving Thalberg and M-G-M tried to do was to prove that with enough effort and money-spent a movie could be openly admired and respected like theatre.
Cruella doesn't come from that inferiority complex that haunted old Hollywood, but is like this in that Disney has dropped into that "proven property" slipstream where they make things based upon their older library of films and their theme parks, and they hurl money at it so that the CGI is state of the art and the stars on the screen are popular with the target audience, and the sound track is larded with licensed pop music from older eras that not only buttresses the usually thin story line and characterization, but acts as an emotional touchstone for the older audience. The more desperate the production is to rely upon music to fix holes in the cinema of the thing is evidenced when one pop-hit from the past after another pop-hit from the past is shoved into the audio to steer everyone toward an appropriate emotional response that apparently no one making the film has confidence the audience will arrive at just by experiencing the story.
There's plenty of this "crutch" in Cruella, along with special effects and expensive-looking production values to engross the eye. But, what sets this film apart despite its story plainness and bending-over-backwards to try and stitch it to the old Disney films (and a pathetic plea for a sequel at the end) is a demented and exuberant battle of witchcraft, not of the supernatural sort that Disney certainly likes to play with, but from the world of high fashion. In Cruella, color, fabric texture and cut plays an important part of what we're seeing on screen, things that are typically artistic minutia to a general audience, but here the film makers have made it integral, though in a heightened, exaggerated form like a comic book movie, which is what Cruella is in an important way: the hero has a tragic back story origin, has a unique special power (in fashion) and, in something that is otherwise an awful lot like The Devil Wears Prada, except produced as a Marvel Comics movie, with the two opponents (played by Emma and Emma) duelling through the arts of fashion design, as if the battle of wizards Harry Potter and Voldemort was being fought not with magic wands but sewing needles.
Though Disney has made this movie by scraping elements from other films and then larding the result with pop music, two things that usually kill whatever originality a modern production holds, Cruella doesn't succumb. One reason is that some of this pop music actually does play into the story in an appropriate way because of the time setting; secondly, the filmmakers try to inventively use everything to fuel the obsessive war of the two fashion designers which is the whole heart of the movie, no matter how strongly the script wants to tack on dozens of other things about friendship, motherhood, looking "cool" while presenting the typical dishonest Hollywood romance of destitution and poverty as also "cool."
Cruella is certainly not flawless, it is overdone and has too many touches that indicate a committee of decision makers messed with it, but when the two Emmas are carrying the tale it is purely enjoyable. When the production is marshalling the weapons of their fashion war onto the screen, it's simultaneously everything a good movie should be: visually engrossing, acted (cartooningly) well with precision, and moving forward a story that even if you don't care about it, you want the mystery of it all to be revealed, which means you do care about it.
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Original Page April 19, 2022