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Cruella Shows How To Avoid Disney's Biggest Live-Action Remake Problem

Disney's twist on the One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) IP, Cruella, proved that the company understands how to solve its live-action remakes problem. Beginning in the '90s, Disney has mined their iconic library of classic animated films to produce live-action versions of those stories, but the phenomenon has accelerated considerably in the 2010s. As the studio saturated the market with uninspired retreads of beloved material, an issue became clear: Disney needed to either change the story in a way that would necessitate its retelling, or audiences would prefer to rewatch the cherished original. Like Maleficent before it, Cruella takes this lesson – but to what extent is it successful?

While not technically the first — or even second — live-action remake of the Dalmatians franchise, Cruella takes a different approach from the Glenn Close led 101 and 102 Dalmatians films by turning her antagonist into the new movie's protagonist. Cruella tells the story of young, offbeat Estella, whose tragic backstory and innate design talent become intertwined when she rises to the top of the London countercultural fashion scene. As she grows more ambitious and threatened by The Baroness (her former employer, business competitor, and birth-mother), she loses her humanity ever so slightly, before skillfully executing a coup and shedding her former alias, carrying forward the legend of Cruella DeVil.

Related: Cruella Using Dalmatians Makes The Disney Movie Worse

The choice to center the traditional antagonist in the role of the protagonist forces the film to avoid the Disney remakes' most common problem: a lack of originality. By focusing on Estella's backstory — original narrative material based on preexisting characters — audiences aren't left yearning for the original animated film being translated into live-action since strictly speaking there's no analogous work to go back to. Much like Maleficent, which examined a new, invented backstory for another classic Disney villainess, the film fundamentally avoids the retread criticism.

But the twist employed by these two villainess origin stories doesn't save them from all manner of criticism, and Cruella does perpetuate certain Disney problems. Both Maleficent and Cruella received mixed reviews, praising magnetic performances from Angelina Jolie in the former, and the two Emmas (Stone and Thompson) in the latter, while criticizing writing and questioning their necessity. That the screenplays bore much of the burden for their films' shortcomings suggests finding new narrative territory is not inherently the same as finding good narrative territory.

Still, as the remakes go, creating new villain origin stories is preferable to the current assembly-line approach. With the likes of Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), and Aladdin (2019) to select a sample, each rehashes the classic tales bereft of the magic that seared them into the cultural landscape, while introducing elements aimed at solving problems that didn't exist. For example, the changes made to Belle and the Beast's relationship in the remake add nothing to — and detract considerably from — the quality of the movie. The same goes for the removal of select problematic elements in Dumbo and the inclusion of a shoehorned #MeToo number in Aladdin.

By focusing on the backstory of a traditional Disney villain, Cruella wisely forces this latest remake to create new narrative material, solving the biggest problem faced by the live-action versions of their animated classics. Unfortunately, it doesn't solve all the problems. New may be better than old, but good is better than new and one doesn't necessarily beget the other. As plans move forwards on Cruella 2, the filmmakers would do well to remember that adage.

Next: Cruella: All 3 Possible Disney Movies It Sets Up

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