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Cruella (prelude)

In the past, I’ve speculated that the motion picture wing of Disney seems to be divided into two branches. There’s the one branch that bought up Marvel and Star Wars, with the vision of nurturing those two into far-reaching multimedia superfranchises. And there’s the other branch that’s apparently suffered short-term memory loss since 2010, stuck in a time when Avatar was still the highest-grossing film of all time and Alice in Underland was the way of the future.

It’s the latter branch that I blame for the ongoing Disney live-action remake trend. And they are fucked.

For the past decade, Disney has been cranking out live-action remakes of their classic animated hits at a relentless pace of at least one or two per year. And surprisingly, they still appear to be lucrative, as Aladdin (2019) and The Lion King (2019) were both among the ten highest-grossing films of that year. Trouble is, while audience demand may still be consistently high (for whatever reason), Disney is rapidly running out of viable movies to remake. What to do?

Could they try making sequels to the remakes we’ve already got? Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Alice Through the Looking Glass both bombed, so that’s out.

Maybe Tim Burton could come back to salvage the live-action remake trend he inadvertently started? Dumbo (2019) says otherwise.

Well, why doesn’t Disney try making something original? Something that looks and sounds like the live-action remakes, but isn’t a remake. Why couldn’t that work? Remember The Nutcracker and the Four Realms? That’s why.

Hey, Disney could pander to China and make a grab for all that lucrative box office cash over there with a remake that appeals to everyone on both sides of the Pacific. What could go wrong? Based on how Mulan (2020) turned out, quite a lot.

So now Disney is going back to one of their old tricks, but with a new twist. With Cruella, Disney is once again attempting to give a sympathetic origin story to one of their most iconic villains. They’re trying to bring sympathy to a character whose sole appeal is in how much fun she is to hate. They’re trying to craft an origin story that nobody requested, for a character who never needed it. Yes, it worked for Maleficent the one time, but the sequel should’ve proved that was a fluke. Why the hell should anyone think that it would work for Cruella?

Two reasons.

  1. Joker was a billion-dollar box office smash, and it won two Oscars out of 11 nominations.
  2. Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn is massively popular, ditto for the character’s ongoing animated series.

From the very first trailer, it was blindingly obvious that Disney was trying to ride the coattails of DC’s successes with Joker and Harley. In theory, not a bad idea. In practice, Joker actively embraced the character’s psychotic and misanthropic nature while Birds of Prey went into great detail about Harley’s domestic abuse trauma. The approach can only work if the filmmakers go full-tilt and embrace the darkness, reveling in the insanity.

Joker and Birds of Prey were both rated R, for good reason. Cruella is rated PG-13. We all know damn well that Disney is neither willing nor able to go as dark as this approach needs, and the character wasn’t built for it. If this is indeed what the filmmakers were going for (and the trailer wasn’t selectively cut to make it look like Joker or Birds of Prey), I can all but guarantee it’s not going to work.

Which brings me to the next big problem. In fact, it brings me to the next 200 million problems.

(Side note: Yes, I know it’s the Daily Mail. Take this with a grain of salt, by all means, but it’s the best I can find right now.)

This movie has a reported budget of $200 million, which would be consistent with the other recent live-action remakes we’ve seen. And at that level, it wouldn’t be enough for the film to work. It wouldn’t be enough for the film to make money. No, a $200 million movie has to make ALL THE MONEY. Anything less than a billion-dollar hit would be a massive black eye for the studio. No company would put down $200 million on a movie unless it was going to take the world and the Oscars by storm, generating a massive ongoing revenue stream through merchandising, theme park attractions, and vague promises of sequels that may or may not actually happen but will generate attraction and stockholder interest either way.

I’ve said it for years now, and I’ll keep on saying it: Studios have to stop gambling their entire futures on billion-dollar hits. Hollywood has got to get out of this business model where every single tentpole release has to make billions of dollars that moviegoers don’t have, or they’ll lose enough money to put the entire conglomerate — not to mention the industry itself! — in jeopardy. It already sunk Fox, MGM is rapidly going the same way, and Disney is now at the point where it’s practically their entire fucking business model.

Looking ahead to Disney’s film slate (not counting the films carried over from the Fox acquisition, since those are sunk costs), I see Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, Shang-Chi, Eternals, and Cruella. Five movies budgeted at or over $200 million, and those are just the ones coming out this year. To say nothing of the money that two or three of those movies have already lost from sitting on the shelf through 2020.

Can all five of those movies be billion-dollar successes when they’re crowding against each other and all the other films coming out from the other studios? How much does one success have to make so that it recoups its own costs in addition to the losses of a massive failure? How many of those movies can bomb — and how hard? — before the Disney execs have to make some tough decisions and come up with some difficult answers?

One way or another, this live-action remake trend can’t last. And with each passing year, it’s become increasingly obvious that Disney has no idea how to keep it going. They need to find something else, and fast. And I worry that with all the vast time and resources that they’ve devoted into patching up this worn-down ship, Disney hasn’t had the capacity to greenlight other ventures that could light the way toward the next big thing.

Disney has been on top of the world for a while now, and I worry that a crash is coming. In the meantime, Cruella comes out on May 28th. Let’s see what happens.

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  1. Ping from Cruella » Movie Curiosities:

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