When Disney dropped the trailer for its forthcoming 101 Dalmatians origins story Cruella in February, the internet went into something of a meltdown. The trailer, it was quickly noted, bore a distinct similarity to the one for Todd Phillips's 2019 smash Joker.
There were the hints of a tormented past resulting in the villain we know and love (to hate) today; the first person voiceover detailing the protagonist's wickedness; snapshots of the nemeses that tipped our anti-heroes over the edge (Baroness Von Hellman for Cruella, Thomas Wayne for the Joker); a soundtrack from the golden era of 1950s crooning (Connie Francis's Who's Sorry Now for Cruella vs Charlie Chaplin's Smile); and an overriding sense that we were going to learn a lot more about the titular characters than we ever would while they were playing second fiddle to the heroes of the movies we have seen them in before.
The hashtag #DisneysJoker was soon trending, but is this really a fair comparison? There's no doubting Cruella delves into territory a little darker than we might expect from a Disney live-action spin-off. It has even received a PG-13 rating in the US, only the second of Disney's recent clutch of live-action remakes to enter such "adult" territory, following Mulan. But it's still not in the R-rated world of Joker. Cruella, after all, is the story of a narcissistic aristocrat with a penchant for dog-fur coats, while Joker tells of a psychopathic maniac hellbent on global destruction, while packed with tales of abuse and torture that would never come close to PG-13 territory.
Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Cruella's henchman Horace in the new film, concludes that sometimes the internet just likes easy comparisons. "People like to find one quick way to describe something, and it becomes catchy and suddenly people are agreeing with it without even knowing what they're talking about – that's just Twitter," the actor laments. "The Joker comparison is kind of lazy. I'd like to be compared to it by way of fostering cool conversations and making a ton of money, that would be cool, but I think that the comparisons end there."
Actress Emma Stone, who plays Cruella herself, agrees the Joker comparisons are over the top, though she is pleased with the film's undeniably dark edge. "[Disney] really let Craig [Gillespie, director] and Tony [McNamara, screenplay] write and make what they wanted to make," she says. "It's definitely dark for a Disney movie. Maybe not for a really intense R-rated film, but it was darker than I've seen a Disney movie for a good long time."
Stone's co-star Emma Thompson, a veteran of British period dramas like Howard's End and Sense and Sensibility, also seems to have enjoyed the opportunity to go a little closer to the dark side in her latest role as the movie's true villain, the Baroness Von Hellman.
“I had such fun doing her, because I've been asking for quite a number of years if I could be a villain, a proper villain,” she says. “I spent decades playing what my mother used to call 'good women in frocks’, and now I got to play a really evil woman in frocks.”
The lauded thespian appears to have taken her newfound love for evil off-set as well, as she jokingly admits to attempting to have her co-star, Wink the dog, fired from the movie for stealing her spotlight. “I told stories. I said he'd come and widdled on one of my costumes, and nobody believed me. They just knew I was lying and that it was just a vicious attempt to get rid of this dog that was, frankly, upstaging me and getting in my light,” she says with a laugh. “The dog was an obstacle.”
What is perhaps most surprising about the film, however, is not how Disney dabbled in darkness for the origins story of this classic animated villain, but how much love we have for her by the end of the film. In both the 1961 animation and the two live-action remakes from the '90s, featuring Glenn Close as the haute couture-laden harridan, there's little doubt as to the evilness of Cruella. In Cruella, however, the character begins as nothing more than naughty schoolgirl Estella (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland in the film's early scenes), and becomes the likeable-but-oppressed aspiring fashion designer in the Baroness's 1970s London design house.
Her adoption of the Cruella mantle is not just an alter ego with which to fight the Baroness, but a part of her effort to shake up the staid culture of the era. The parallels to enfant terrible Vivienne Westwood and the punk rock movement are unavoidable – and signposted in both the fashions and soundtrack – and quite laudable.
Cruella can deliver some low blows, but they're all designed to defeat the infinitely more wicked Baroness, whose crimes are far greater. It's not the darker tone that could alienate audiences from the source material, but the fact we end up rooting for this previously detested character.
Hauser seems unconcerned about the apparent redrawing of his fictional mistress's moral compass, however. “We've got to start twisting and contorting these timelines and these materials or we're not going to have any movies left,” he says.
"Hollywood doesn't invite many wholly original films – a movie like Little Miss Sunshine is very hard to get made, whereas a movie like Superman or Batman is not as hard to get made.
"I think Disney is figuring out how to put creative people in the driver's seat of an intellectual property vehicle, and let them drive their way and do something really interesting with it. And I think Cruella is the best example I've seen in several years of Disney letting somebody take the reins creatively and do something totally new with something that we've seen before.
"I really hope that people get to enjoy the full breadth of creativity of Cruella."
Cruella is in UAE cinemas from Thursday