Lady And The Tramp
You know, as much content as Disney+ undeniably has – and oh boy is it a lot of content – one thing that it’s already struggling to do in regards its main competition is to keep up with new releases. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, they all seem to get loads of new stuff every week of some description, while Disney+ seems content to rest on its laurels. That may not be a problem now, but it will become one eventually. This is relevant as to date there are only two original movies – Togo, and this – that I have had any interest in seeing on the platform, and both saw their original release last year on the US version of the site.
That little rant over, I obviously had an interest in checking this out, then the latest live-action remake of a classic property from the studio. The original Lady And The Tramp would certainly rank pretty high in my estimation, and getting the chance to watch it again recently did not change that opinion. It’s a sweet romantic tale that serves as a love letter to canine kind, and if it has its faults – one thing that springs to mind is the lack of agency that Lady has in the story that has her name on it – they are forgivable. A live-action version offers the opportunity to correct some of those faults and forge a fresh take, but also the pitfalls of this little sub-sub-genre: on which side of the coin did Lady And The Tramp fall?
“Jim Dear” (Thomas Mann) and “Darling” (Kiersey Clemons) welcome new dog Lady (Tessa Thompson) into their lives, and she rapidly becomes a key part of the family. At the same time, vagabond mutt Tramp (Justin Theroux) lives on the streets, enjoying a carefree existence and causing trouble for an obsessive dog-catcher (Adrian Martinez). When unlikely circumstances bring the two dogs together they both catch a glimpse of a world they never knew, but there are many obstacles to be overcome if they are to fulfill their obvious affection for each other.
Like I said, re-makes should be seen as opportunities to give things another go and improve them: to keep what works about the source material, change what doesn’t work or is out-dated, and try and bring both of these aspects together in a better experience. 2020’s (in Europe) Lady And The Tramp isn’t really able to do this unfortunately, though I must admit that it makes a game attempt. But it’s hard to fully take any of its attempts to improve all that seriously when you’re raising your eyebrows at the appearance of the principals.
I’ll get to the visuals in a bit, but for now let’s focus on changes. The main faults of the original animation would have been the aforementioned lack of agency for Lady; perhaps a lack of an antagonistic focus to drive the narrative with a bit more urgency; and a certain sentimentality that occasionally turns into outright saccharine unpalatableness. To give Charlie Bean and his film its due, it does take a shot at all of these problems. But not always successfully.
Lady is certainly given more time in 2020, this film being a good half-hour longer than its predecessor. There’s a slightly expanded prologue, and a very expanded finale, wherein Lady is showcased a bit more. But does she really get more agency, in comparison to the more plot-dynamic Tramp? Not really. It’s still Tramp doing the rescuing of Lady early on, it’s still Tramp leading her around the city on their whirlwind romance, and it’s still Tramp dealing with the rat at the end when Lady is locked in a room. Lady leads an attempt to rescue him at the end, but that’s a just a fairly generic PG action scene. In the end, Lady is still largely without character herself, just an uptown girl following the downtown boy around. That feeling isn’t helped by Tessa Thompson’s performance. Some take to VA likes ducks to water, and some don’t: Thompson’s Lady is quite dull in delivery.
What about the antagonistic focus? Well, Bean does try a few things here, to up the stakes and keep you engaged. Gone are the problematic Siamese cats, in come some more traditional looking tabbies voiced by Roman GianArthur and Nathan Wonder for a slightly funkier, and considerably less racist, song. The dog-catcher who was a largely faceless figure in 1955 now has a face, and a fair bit of screen-time, in the form of Adrian Martinez, whom I last saw being one of the better parts of the otherwise lacklustre Focus. He’s a mostly comedy villain – a ridiculously serious civil servant who seems to treat harmless stray dogs like they are on the FBI Most Wanted list – but at least manages to give the scenes he is in a certain vaudevillian form, with the guy one step away from mustache twirling. Oh, and there’s the rat of course, and here I do have to give Lady And The Tramp some kudos: what was a sudden interjection in 1955 is now a better set-up thing, and if the CGI has trouble in many other parts it at least works with the rodent.
As for the sentimentality, well it is still there in spades. Bean doesn’t stray too far away from the basic points of the original story: uptown girl, downtown boy, girl gets thrown into an environment she isn’t comfortable with, boy shows her around, spaghetti, city lights, romance, etc. The spaghetti scene has only gotten more unbearably sweet, and the general romantic plot-line adheres quite stringently to the formula. In the style of the screwball comedies that undoubtedly influenced the original and continue to influence its successors, Lady and Tramp go through their entire relationship basically in a day and a night, give or take some timeline jumping near the conclusion.
And it is not bad stuff by any means, but it is regrettably familiar with the script not willing to take many risks in that department, not with the characters, who are as you remember, and not with their relationship. Perhaps the setting – I presume a turn of the century New Orleans, with Savannah substituting – needed some updating to provide more opportunities, but the safer path was taken instead. Given that a co-writer was Andrew Bujalski, the alleged “godfather of mumblecore”, it actually is surprising how routine this relationship and script is.
The film retains some of the more positive elements, and they keep it from being a forgettable offering by managing to maintain the level of being a somewhat mundane curiosity. Peg’s (Janelle Monae) “He’s A Tramp” gets an actual stage in the dog pound (though its lyrics are sanitised a bit), the dinner scene undeniably has a bit of charm (now with F. Murray Abraham), a fussy aunt (Yvete Nicole Brown) brings in two cats who wreck’s Lady’s home in a montage of comical farce. It’s repetition, but at least it is polished, cleaned-up repetition. One must also appreciate an almost surprising dedication to minority cast members, in both human and voice form, with Lady’s owners being in a uncommented-upon mixed-race marriage and Justin Theroux – only really OK as Tramp – almost being a token white guy in many respects. This doesn’t really match the apparent setting, and that could be viewed as questionable, but if this is to be the human injection of fantasy, so be it.
We can’t put off talking about the visuals anymore though. The film opens with an actual American Cocker Spaniel puppy as Lady, and all seems well and good. But then fast-forward a few years to an adult Lady, and suddenly the CGI has turned the adorable pup into an altogether unnerving looking creation, where the necessity of having the creature talk translates into a face that simply does not move correctly. From there and for most of its CGI creations – that otherwise are OK and meld into their environments without trouble – the address is deep in the Uncanny Valley (or Un-Canine-y Valley as it were). Tramp, with a hairy face that can mask the mouth movements a bit better, gets away with it more, but he is not immune. It was not until the final half-hour or so of the film that I was able to not be instantly horrified every time a dog opened its mouth, so we got there in the end I suppose. In combination with the humdrum VA from the leads, the final outcome is a film where the pivotal element of plot and character is off-putting at best, and revolting at worst.
The rest of Bean’s film looks absolutely fine for what it is. The reported budget for Lady And The Tramp – 60 million US dollars – is quite small by the industry standard, especially when you take away the money for CGI and actors’ paychecks, so it is to be expected that the film itself would not have the polish of other Disney productions, and looks appropriate for the TV level. Lady And The Tramp encloses itself within a few sets, and the charterer of the southern filming locations don’t really come through in what seems to be a very colourful but not very inventive effort to re-create the time and place. That is to say, you could have filmed this on Main Street, USA and gotten much of the same effect. There’s nothing too flashy about the cinematography either, with the only stand-out sequence of note being the finale “fight” between Tramp and the rat, which includes a fairly terrifying scene of said rodent murderously glaring upside down at Tramp from the top of a curtain.
Lady And The Tramp is not a great example of the Disney remake sub-genre, regrettably. When it tries something new the effort is only half-baked, and otherwise it sticks fairly rigidly to the 1955 story, loyal to a fault, to the point where the film becomes more about replication then remaking. The animal cast is only really any good when they are singing, which occurs only briefly. And one cannot look very far beyond the missteps that occurred in the animation of the realistic talking dogs, that makes me appreciate Look Who’s Talking 2 more than I did. It has its moments and thing worth praising, like the new antagonists and the POC cast, but those are not good enough to save this dog from the door at the end of the hall. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Disney+).