This story contains spoilers about the movie Cruella.
Want to hear something funny? My first child didn’t watch any TV until she was two years old. But, like so many families, the pandemic changed things.
It’s better now, but at the beginning of the shutdown any kind of rules around screen time limits went right out the window. There’s only so much playing, crafts and games you can encourage your children to do when they can’t see their friends or go to a playground or go…anywhere really. Like many families, TV became our babysitter. We were in survival mode.
My husband and I joked that by the time the pandemic was over, our two children would have watched The Godfather trilogy (It’s just a little violent. It’s fine!) and all seven seasons of Mad Men (Sure there’s adultery, smoking and drinking but it’s time they learned about the real world!) Thankfully that didn’t happen.
But we did go to the ends of Disney+, Netflix and Hulu and back again in search of new content. When every night becomes movie night, the number of age-appropriate movies goes by fast. Every new release was cause for celebration. Was Onward a great movie? No! Did we watch it at least five times? Yes! Could I perform for you the entire repertoire of Trolls World Tour? You better believe it. Did we watch Frozen II at least once a week? We did! (It is the superior Frozen and I will take no further questions or comments at this time.) We practically had a countdown calendar to the premiere of Raya and the Last Dragon and are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Luca on June 18.
But something odd is happening with Disney remaking their beloved animated features into live action. When I first heard there would be a live-action Mulan, I envisioned the songs and dances of the 1998 animated classic coming to life. The movie, which premiered in November of last year, was visually stunning but lacked the heart and songs of its source material. And it was decidedly not for children. The movie carried a PG-13 rating and featured some fairly intense violence. Common Sense Media, the go-to website for parents to determine if a movie or TV series is age-appropriate, rated the movie as being appropriate for 11+. Your mileage may vary depending on how much intense violence and death your child can handle but there are probably not that many five-year-olds who would enjoy it.
Now comes Cruella, which follows the Dalmatian-stealing villain from her birth right up until the start of the story covered in both the 1961 animated and 1996 live-action versions of 101 Dalmatians. Both of those versions garnered a 5+ age rating on Common Sense Media.
Cruella, which has a PG-13 rating like Mulan, stars Emma Stone in the titular role with Emma Thompson as Cruella’s nemesis, the Baroness von Hellman. Since this is a Disney movie, of course Cruella starts off with only one parent who dies approximately 12 minutes into the movie. (Disney has a strict “all parents must die” edict.) We learn how Cruella hooked up with her two henchmen, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). We also meet Roger (Kayvan Novak) and Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) before they become the couple who end up with lots and lots of puppies. The soundtrack is fantastic. The costumes by Jenny Beavan are phenomenal. Thompson looks amazing. But while I appreciated how great the movie looks and the inspired performances by Stone and Thompson, I have to confess it is more than a little boring.
The Cruella/Baroness relationship is The Devil Wears Prada with dogs. There’s some humor, but not much children would find funny. With its two-hour-plus running time, there’s no way it will hold a child’s attention. It barely held my attention. There are very few movies that warrant this runtime and Cruella is definitely not one of them. The movie’s PG-13 rating ensures a darker take on the tale. Sure, both the animated and live-action versions of 101 Dalmatians had Cruella wanting to make a coat out of the puppies’ fur. But that’s nothing compared to the Baroness lighting Cruella on fire to ensure her death.
Too scary and disturbing for children. Not cool enough for teens. Too boring for adults. Cruella begs the question: What is Disney thinking? Who is their intended audience? This seems different than, say, the live-action Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King or Cinderella, all of which earned a PG rating. Even the Maleficent movies with Angelina Jolie as the titular Sleeping Beauty villain are rated PG.
I don’t think adults were clamoring for Cruella’s origin story. She’s a cartoon villain. Do we need to understand the psychology behind her hatred of Dalmatians? Did anyone lay awake at night wondering, “But why does she want a coat of puppy fur? WHY?” Practically every movie and/or TV series from our childhood is being remade or rebooted. Nostalgia remains the pop cultural rage and is still financially lucrative. There’s definitely safety in funding a known entity. Just titling a movie Cruella makes the advertising and promotion of the film so much easier. Is Disney playing the long game here? That once the kids who loved 101 Dalmatians are PG-13 eligible, this movie will be waiting for them on Disney+?
Disney is known for mining its intellectual properties. And it’s hard to blame them: The beloved animated movies are ripe for interpretation, sequels and remakes. One of the best examples of this is Disney Channel’s Descendants trilogy. These three made-for-TV movies, clearly aimed at the preteen set, featured the offspring of Disney’s villains who don’t want to live in their parents’ legendarily evil shadow. These movies featured the late Cameron Boyce as Carlos, son of Cruella. (Who is Carlos’ dad? Perhaps we will find out in the inevitable Cruella sequel.) The Descendants gang sang and danced their way through songs like “It’s Good to be Bad,” “Ways to be Wicked” and “Rotten to the Core.” I’ve seen the movies so many times that if you like, I would be more than happy to reenact the choreography for you. The movies represent a great bridging of movies for children and movies for teens and adults. We need Disney to do more of that on the big screen.
Disney owns so many of the things people want to see. They have Star Wars. They have all the Marvel superheroes. They have Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean. It would be nice if they could leave the beloved cartoons for the kids.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).