Origin story films are all the rage. Most super hero movies use this device when attracting casual movie goers to invest in a character or franchise they wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with.
Disney — that humble production studio with super inexpensive theme parks named after it — released its first major summer movie this week.
“Cruella” focuses on the origin story of the villain from “101 Dalmatians.” This is as unnecessary as pre-peeled bananas covered in plastic wrap in the grocery store; nobody asked for this.
Emma Stone (“La-La Land”) plays the title character, a down-on-her-luck wannabe fashionista going head-to-head against The Baroness, a rival fashion mogul played by Emma Thompson (“Nanny McPhee”).
The scenes depicting both Emmas squaring off in their accouterment-infused pissing contests are engaging; both are skilled actresses. The costuming’s pageantry is definitely eye-catching. But if it feels like this has already been done before, that’s because “The Devil Wears Prada” did it better.
“Cruella” is a Disney-produced carbon copy. The main difference: the character isn’t motivated to simply out-do her nemesis, it’s because she’s out for revenge. It’s a villain’s origin story, so of course that’s the case.
The Baroness is implicit in the death Cruella’s mother after sending a trio of Dalmatian guard dogs chasing the — literally — poor woman off a cliff. Broken, orphaned children often make the best heroes, but Emma Stone isn’t playing would-be hero, she’s playing a villain in the making.
Disney’s current schtick is targeting audiences — specifically young girls — to root and cheer for the female empowerment. That’s fine, but this film is driven by the success of a character who eventually decides to murder puppies in a fashion-crazed crime spree just to make a fur coat! That’s the protagonist!
Can the studio not see the immoral implications inherent with this?
There are some who argued that this film is akin to the Todd Phillips-directed “Joker” (2019) starring Joaquin Phoenix. Yes, that is also a well-known villain’s origin story but these two are not the same. Not even remotely.
“Joker” focuses on a broken man who embraces this alter ego in response to the tragic brokenness of the world bringing him down to its level, struggling with mental illness along the way.
"Cruella" — the title character’s alter ego, by the way — goes from an orphan to working a dead-end job and getting accidentally discovered/mentored by the Baroness who was (not-so-ironically) responsible for said orphaning. Cruella deliberately chooses to become a villain when she doesn’t need to.
The plot points for this film are contrived at best and idiotic at worst. It’s as if the writers read through the Joker’s speech from "Batman: The Killing Joke" about “one bad day” and decided to make a would-be puppy murderer a standout hero in her own film. Sure, bad guys probably don’t think of themselves as villains, but THIS makes Michael Vick look awesome by comparison.
While audiences seem to like it because its Disney and it’s summer and they get to return to theaters, this movie – at least the story — isn’t good. For a film promoting female empowerment, consider who this is actually for and which motivations Disney is trying to empower.
“Cruella” is currently playing in theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier access.