The new Lady and the Tramp is ... good?
It's difficult being a cat person in a world full of dog people. When Disney+ launches on Tuesday, it will include canine classics such as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, The Ugly Dachshund, The Shaggy D.A., White Fang, You Lucky Dog, Fox and the Hound, Snow Dogs, 101 Dalmatians, Life Is Ruff, Eight Below, Santa Paws, and Santa Paws 2: The Santa Pups. One has to seriously wonder if, on top of everything else, the inclusion of a Lady and the Tramp remake was absolutely necessary. At the very least, if we're going to go through this exercise of waving the live-action wand at every animated classic, couldn't the studio have done an Aristocats reboot first?
But it was more than just Disney's dog favoritism that made me apprehensive about the forthcoming movie. The live-action Lady and the Tramp follows up Disney's disastrous remake of The Lion King, a movie that somehow managed to render a perfectly good story soulless and terrifying with its photorealistic digital animals. The straight-to-streaming release plan for Lady didn't seem to bode well either, nor did anything I saw in its trailer, which featured a whole lot of creepy CGI "talking" dog mouths. Taken all together, Lady and the Tramp was the rare movie I'd confidently written off before I even watched it.
So it is with great surprise — not to mention great reluctance as a cat lover — that I have to report the new Lady and the Tramp actually isn't bad at all. It's even, dare I say it, pretty good.
Directed by Charlie Bean, with a script co-written by Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha; Support the Girls) and newcomer Kari Granlund, Lady and the Tramp isn't packed with surprises, though. Aside from a few minor details (a southern setting in place of a midwestern one; a newly diverse cast), the film follows the basic premise of its 1955 predecessor. Lady, a cocker spaniel ingénue, is the adored pet of Jim Dear and Darling before the humans have a baby and Lady is relegated to second fiddle. Then one day, when Jim Dear and Darling are on vacation, Lady gets muzzled by the house-sitter, Aunt Sarah (an unfairly maligned cat lover), and manages to escape. Out on the streets, Lady falls in with a stray mutt named Tramp, who takes her out for cinema's most famous spaghetti dinner.
But what might have been a paint-by-numbers remake is given sparkle and charm by a cast that seems actually invested in bringing their characters to life. Tessa Thompson is the refined voice of Lady, while Justin Theroux is the charismatic Tramp. Singer and actress Janelle Monáe loans her voice to the street-smart Pekingese Peg, who does a jazzy if unmemorable rendition of "He's a Tramp." Really, though, the movie is worth streaming just to hear Sam Elliott, voicing a bloodhound named Trusty, drawl thoughtfully: "Banana peel ... trash ... cat dung." The human cast are lovely too: Kiersey Clemons is the smiling mother Darling, Adrian Martinez lends an unexpected depth to the dogcatcher Elliott, and Arturo Castro is the delightful waiter who serves Lady and Tramp their romantic meal.
Really, though, it is the animal actors that make all the difference. Where other movies and shows have relied on clunky CGI animals and digital fur technology, Lady and the Tramp instead employed actual dogs Rose and Monte in the lead roles. The effect is totally vintage Disney; the movie is far more Homeward Bound than it is 2019 Lion King, and all the better for it. Still, in one of the movie's few major missteps, Disney animated the dogs' mouths when they "talk," giving the pooches a goofy appearance that I never quite stopped giggling at. It'd have been better to simply use voice-overs.
I also regret to report that the vilification of cats continues in Lady and the Tramp, although in this remake, Lady is tormented by two gray shorthairs rather than the racist Siamese cats of the original. Gone, also, are those cats' offensive "Siamese Cat Song," in favor of a creative track about "redecorating," although the music throughout the film seems more an afterthought than a driving stylistic choice.
Unlike other Disney live-action remakes, which use their medium as an excuse to make the stories more adult, Lady and the Tramp is clearly a children's movie first and foremost. But live action also has the unintended consequence of making the original's mature moments even more disturbing, including when one of Lady's companions in the pound is taken to be euthanized, and when Tramp kills a rat (which now looks like a real rat!) in the baby's room. The latter scene, at least, is hidden from view by a curtain, although it's a good reminder of the lingering advantages that hand-drawn animation has over the live-action fad.
The biggest reason why Lady and the Tramp works when so many other Disney live-action remakes have failed is because it seems to exist as more than just a naked money grab by the studio. The film is not being released in theaters, for one thing; it will come included with a Disney+ subscription on Tuesday, a kind of freebie enticement for on-the-fence would-be subscribers. As several other critics have pointed out, this format actually serves the movie better than a traditional release would have; audiences won't go in with the unfairly high expectations they might have had if they spent $17 on a ticket. Plus, if you decide midway through that the creepy moving dog mouths are too much, Disney+ has the original 1955 Lady and the Tramp waiting for you just a click away.
Now, how about that Aristocats remake?
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