On Set: A Prequel and a Sequel

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts discusses two highly anticipated premieres that hope to build on the lore of their respective universes.
Emily Blunt (left) and Emma Stone (right) star in "A Quiet Place Part II" and "Cruella." (Paramount/Disney)

by | May 28, 2021 | Culture

The best thing about a sequel is when it gives you more of something you enjoy. The worst thing is when it falls short of expectations because it is, by definition, a dilution of the original material. Exhibit A is “The Matrix Reloaded.” The counterargument is, of course, “The Empire Strikes Back,” but examples of the former outweigh the latter. Prequels have their own set of challenges to overcome too, some technical and some fundamental. The most obvious is the complete lack of meaningful risk for the characters we already know will live on. There is also the issue of bringing along new, first-time investors in the brand. For this and other reasons, prequel writers are forced to employ lengthy exposition dumps and winking references to tread the fine line between the needs of potential and established fans.

“Cruella,” out now in theaters and on Disney Plus, stars Emma Stone as a budding version of the villain from “101 Dalmatians.” This is an origin story, full of fateful foreshadowing and critical moments when the course of the subject’s life turns on choices and chances that highlight the inevitability of their final form.

Emma Stone is excellent, as always, as the conflicted young Cruella. Her foil is played by another Emma, Thompson in this case. The Baroness is the real villain of the film, acting as a forge in which the ambitious Cruella will be shaped into the evil genius we know from our childhood. This prequel seems intent on making Cruella more sympathetic, or at least more complicated, than the two-dimensional baddie from 1961. Some of the explanations for why she is the way she is are sensible and even compelling. Others are serious eye-rollers.

Luckily, none of the clumsy retconning or on-the-nose soundtrack choices take away from the best parts of the experience, which are the costumes. I’ve noticed people online referring to this movie as “The Devil Wears Prada” meets “Joker.” They’re half right. I don’t speak the language of fashion fluently, but “Cruella” proposes a design world that is dazzling and incredibly fun to peek into for a couple of hours.

There is nothing fun about the world of “A Quiet Place Part II.” Set right after the events of Part I, Director John Krasinski’s dark alien invasion story continues to be a highly unique take on the monsters vs. man template. But without the surprises or novel conceits of the original to keep us on the edge of our seats, Part II must survive on plot alone. It does, but just barely.

Emily Blunt really sells the battle-tested matriarch that Evelyn probably always was even before her husband died. A chance encounter with an old family friend played by Cillian Murphy adds another adult voice into the mix quickly, but it’s the Abbott children who are at the heart of this tale. Their separate reactions to the traumatic upending of their already dangerous lives are too thinly drawn at first. But they take on greater significance as things progress. Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe are definitely up to the challenge of carrying the film when Blunt and Murphy fade into the background, which is why the rushed ending feels so disappointing.

Krasinski was clearly building up to something special with the kids in the movie’s final moments but, instead of just enjoying it for what it was, I found myself mourning what it could have been.

Not every story needs multiple chapters, but “Cruella” and “A Quiet Place Part II” both succeed in adding value to their brands. At a time where there seem to be no more new ideas, doing good work with old ones is no small feat.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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