Lady and the Tramp review: A refreshingly humble Disney live-action remake
It’s less a faithful translation of an animated classic than a nostalgic throwback to the era of ‘Babe’ and ‘Homeward Bound’
Dir: Charlie Bean. Starring: Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Janelle Monáe, Sam Elliott, Thomas Mann, Kiersey Clemons, Yvette Nicole Brown. PG cert, 103 mins
Disney+’s slate of original films doesn’t look all that impressive at first. Unlike the streamer’s TV offerings, there’s no Marvel or Star Wars in sight – just a handful of tween book adaptations (Stargirl and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made), an old-fashioned Arctic romp (Togo), and a new version of Lady and the Tramp. But Disney has a plan. Now that the mid-budget, live-action family film has been hounded out of the multiplexes by superhero epics and Minions sequels, there’s hope it could find a new home in streaming. Lady and the Tramp is part of that experiment. It’s less a faithful translation of an animated classic than a nostalgic throwback to the era of Babe and Homeward Bound.
We’re certainly a world away from last year’s computer-generated Lion King remake. There are real-life dogs here who sit, shake their paws, and pounce on command. Most are rescues, all since adopted. It goes without saying that they’re adorable to a fault. In post-production, the CGI wizards have pushed and pulled their features to give the impression that they’re talking and emoting as humans do. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but there’s still no getting around the fact that when the pups finally smooch over their spaghetti dinner, it looks a little like two pieces of ham being slapped together. Some things just look better in 2D.
Lady and the Tramp keeps the bare bones of its predecessor. An amiable, handsomely dressed couple – Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons) – spoil their cocker spaniel Lady (Tessa Thompson) no end. She has her own armchair, with its own embroidered cushion. They let her sleep in their bed without question. To her horror, that fur-baby status is suddenly nullified by the arrival of an actual human child. “When the baby moves in, the dog moves out,” she’s warned. After a dog-hating aunt (Yvette Nicole Brown) chases her out of the house, she finds a strange companionship in Tramp (Justin Theroux), a street dog who takes pride in his bachelor lifestyle.
It’s a refreshingly humble film. From a dog’s-eye view, we’re given a leisurely tour of turn-of-the-century Savannah (the 1955 original was half an hour shorter and set in the Midwest). Jazz music fills the air and moss hangs off the tree branches like a kind of verdant tinsel. One new sequence involves a trip on a steamboat, as musicians stand on the bow and play the 1913 hit “You Made Me Love You”. The breezy atmosphere might be thanks to an unexpected voice on the project: the “godfather of mumblecore” Andrew Bujalski, who co-wrote the script and has a history of loose, semi-improvisational dialogue.
Director Charlie Bean, fresh from 2017’s The Lego Ninjago Movie, knows that a great vocal performance can bring life to an expressionless subject. Thompson and Theroux are perfectly cast in this respect – not only do they have natural chemistry, but they find small ways to revamp their characters for the 21st century. Thompson’s Lady is more headstrong than her predecessor, with a dash of pampered cluelessness (she brings pure outrage to the line: “I haven’t even been brushed since this morning!”). Theroux brings a Harrison Ford-esque gruffness to the role. Think of him as a four-legged Han Solo – cynical and weary. Ashley Jensen and Sam Elliott are reliably charming as Jock, a Scottish terrier, and Trusty, a washed-up bloodhound.
Unsurprisingly, the original’s painfully racist earworm “The Siamese Cat Song” has been shown the door. Its replacement is lively, if not particularly memorable, as two Devon rexes rampage through the Darling home and knock priceless ornaments off the shelves. But the film’s also pulled back on the class commentary that was once present in Lady and Tramp’s relationship. Instead, there’s a generic pro-adoption stance that reminds us that every dog has worth and deserves love. It’s best summed up in the film’s handling of the spaghetti scene, which plays up the two men – a waiter (Arturo Castro) and the owner of Tony’s restaurant (F Murray Abraham) – who rush out to set down a tablecloth, candles, and menu for two stray dogs. Then, of course, they belt out “Bella Notte”. It’s a genuinely sweet moment, laced with a care for all creatures. There’s something welcoming about this new Lady and the Tramp.
Lady and the Tramp is available to stream on Disney+