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New Escapist Column! On “Cruella” and Overly Determined Origin Stories…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Cruella in theatres and on Disney+, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the trend towards overly deterministic origin stories.

The origin story has arguably always been around, even if the term itself only really entered the mainstream through comic books and then making the leap into film criticism with comic book movies. Nevertheless, the recent trend of overly-determined origin stories betrays something frustrating about the state of our collective imagination. One of the most disappointing aspects of Cruella is the way that the film takes a simple but weird figure and paints an origin that is completely and predictably by the numbers.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Cruella

Cruella arrives as the culmination of two interconnected trends.

Most obviously, Cruella is the latest in the long line of live action (or pseudo-live action) adaptations of classic Disney properties hoping to turn the studio’s animated back catalogue into a source of rich intellectual property that can be steadily mined for quick returns. Movies like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King all grossed over a billion dollars, so there is surely an audience hungry to see beloved childhood classics transferred into live action.

Ready for some hot takes?

Ironically enough, 101 Dalmatians was one of the first films to make that leap from pencil and inks to live action, with an adaptation (and a sequel) in the mid-nineties. Indeed, it’s arguable that Glenn Close’s incarnation of Cruella DeVil looms just large enough in the culture that a simple reboot of the premise might feel a little gauche. Jon Favreau could direct a second pseudo-live-action version of The Jungle Book for the company, but only because the earlier effort had no cultural footprint.

So Cruella is not content to be a straight-up reimagining of the classic Disney cartoon. Instead, the film draws from another contemporary trend when it comes to managing these intellectual properties: the villain-centric reboot. Cruella is arguably of a piece with recent pop culture like Ratchet, Maleficent or Joker, all works that reimagined a familiar intellectual property through the lens of its antagonist. There is evidently money in this concept, with Joker earning over a billion dollars and Maleficent earning half a billion and inspiring a sequel.

A crime of fashion.

So Cruella offers an origin story for the classic Disney villain, inviting the audience to get to know the monstrous fashion designer whose defining character trait was her desire to skin a lot of adorable puppies to make the perfect coat. It’s certainly an ambitious assignment. While Cruella is one of the most striking villains in the Disney canon, with one of the catchiest theme songs, she is hardly the most complex or nuanced. There’s hardly a lot of tragedy to be mined in a character so horrifically monstrous that “if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.”

This sets up the central tension in Cruella, and the problem that the movie never quite manages to resolve. Cruella is a much stronger movie whenever it allows itself to drift away from the shadow of 101 Dalmations and become its own thing, but it suffers greatly when it finds itself drawn back into the gravity of the original Disney classic. Cruella works reasonably well as a seventies-set fashion heist movie, but struggles when it tries to be a compelling villain origin story for a character who really never needed one.

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New Escapist Video! “Cruella – Review in 3 Minutes”

I’m thrilled to be launching 3-Minute Reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Cruella, which released in cinemas and on Disney+ this weekend.