One of my favourite films growing up as a kid was Disney’s animated classic Lady and the Tramp. I sadly never got to own a dog as a kid, but it was something I yearned for and I think it was because of my desire to have a dog that I related to these animated, dog-centric films so wholeheartedly. The story of Lady and that street dog sometimes called Tramp is a timeless one. It is sweet, warm, and romantic. So when Disney announced they were continuing their live action adaptation trend with Lady and the Tramp exclusively for Disney+, I was excited along with feeling an appropriate amount of trepidation. I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of these live action remakes, but with the recent controversy around The Lion King adaptation, with the animals not expressing any emotion due to the commitment to authenticity, I felt like Lady and the Tramp could be in trouble. The truth of it is that I am both right and wrong. There are things to love about this new version: the voice acting of each and every dog in this cast, the production design, costuming, and certain select changes to the events in the plot such as the Siamese twin cat song and more scenes spent with Lady and Tramp getting to know one another, giving us more time to see them fall in love. Unfortunately, to match those positives there is one thing that limits how special this film can be and that is they took a very safe approach to this adaptation. The plot and story in itself don’t change, it is just expanded on and adjusted slightly to reflect the times we live in and all that results in is a simple film.
The film is simple because it is essentially a beat-for-beat remake of the 1955 animated film. The setting is the exact same, the house design is eerily similar, and Lady’s owners even have the same strange names Darling and Jim Dear. Eye roll. Now just because everything is almost exactly the same does not mean it is boring to witness. The production design is well done, especially considering that this film was probably not given a budget akin to the Aladdin or Jungle Book remakes, and every single dog used on camera holds that pitch perfect look. You cannot help yourself but to release an audible “aww” at the endlessly cute things these dogs do. What takes a little time to adjust to is the animation around the dogs mouths when they speak. I appreciated the attempt to make them emote, but initially this effect looked creepy and noticeably fake. You get used to it over time, but more work could have been to make it more believable.
With that said, the true triumph of the film is the voice cast and they are what make the lacklustre effects work bearable. Tessa Thompson as Lady provides the young pup with enough naivete early on that sets her character up for a full arc of growth. Justin Theroux gives Tramp an unexpected level of pathos and depth where I felt the pain around his backstory of becoming a street dog. Now that backstory isn’t anything revolutionary, he was abandoned by a family as soon as they had a baby, but Theroux’s line delivery around this subject brought credence and relevance to that event and it broke my heart. Sam Elliott and Ashley Jensen round out Lady’s friends as Trusty and Jock respectively. Each are given multiple moments to provide some comedy, but Jock’s in particular, take the cake. They are all hilarious, and the accent fits the character even better than the 1955 original. I love Jock.
One scene/musical number is a completely welcomed change from the original. The Siamese cats are no longer part of a bad Asian stereotype; they are changed to be simply evil, scheming cats. There is no accent to them anymore, and it quickens that scene where the cats frame Lady as a bad dog.
The other welcome change is that Lady and Tramp spend much more time together, on a first “date” before reaching the romantic pasta dinner at Tony’s. They are each given time to share bits and pieces about themselves, and you can see them get more and more comfortable with one another as time goes on to the point that when the classic back alley restaurant scene occurs, it is a beautiful and earned moment. Oh, and F. Murray Abraham’s small role as Tony is wonderful, I had no idea he was in the film, and he was such a welcome sight. Most of the human characters, like Lady’s parents, are placeholders to funnel the story forward. Abraham brings humanity and soul to this scene and the film even though his role is nothing more than a cameo. Before I forget, the musical rendition of ‘This is the Night’ is one of the most beautiful uses of music and lyrics ever, it is a perfect blend of new and old, and it hit my heart in a big way.
Everything I’ve mentioned has been overly positive, and it is enjoyable, but I can’t say all of it justifies the film’s extra half hour of run time. I often forget, but the original is a crisp 1 hour and 15 minutes long and that extra half hour is noticeable in some spots that it really slows the pace down in a way that I did not appreciate. In complete honesty, I fell asleep during my first viewing for the last 15 minutes of the film, and that is because everything that happens is a recreation of the first film as I mentioned before, only it takes longer to get through for no particular reason.
The performances make this worth a watch, and I recommend that any and all fans of this story and the original animated film give it a chance, but I can’t say I’ll ever choose to watch this over the original here on out.
Lady and the Tramp (2019) is streaming exclusively on Disney+.