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REVIEW: ’Lady and the Tramp’ (2019)

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Justin Theroux and Tessa Thompson in Lady and the Tramp (2019)

Disney’s current trend of live-action remakes has continuously been a contentious subject amongst critics and audiences ever since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland set the stage for them in 2010. While many have questioned Disney’s decision to do new versions of their most iconic animated films, audiences have been kind to them, for the most part. As for me, I’m in the crowd that’s 100% fine with them because I know that they aren’t meant to replace their animated predecessors but still do everything they can to be very respectful of their source material. And now that Disney’s shiny new streaming service Disney+ has been unleashed, the newest Disney remake has been included amongst its Day 1 original content in a new live-action adaptation of Walt Disney Animation’s 1955 effort, Lady and the Tramp. Overall, I’d sum up Lady and the Tramp under the category of ‘Disney classics that, unfortunately, tend to get overlooked sometimes due to some of the other films that came out during that period’. In this instance, Lady and the Tramp, as far as its initial release was concerned, was sandwiched right between two of what are arguably Disney Animation’s most iconic films, Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that this charming little tale of a pampered Cocker Spaniel who falls in love with a street-savvy stray mutt is just as well-regarded as the other Disney classics of its time, especially thanks to its iconic sequence where the titular duo share a romantic spaghetti dinner to the tune of ‘Bella Notte’. This, of course, brings us to its new live-action remake, which is directed by Charlie Bean, a veteran animator who’s worked on several classic shows including Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls. He also made his directorial debut back in 2017 with the considerably underrated LEGO Ninjago Movie, and here, he delivers an earnest and all-around heartwarming rendition of a classic Disney love story.

In a quaint little Midwestern town, Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) gives his wife Darling (Kiersey Clemons) a Cocker Spaniel for Christmas, whom they name Lady. As time goes on, Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson) becomes incredibly accustomed to her life of luxury, especially after Jim and Darling give her a new collar. However, things start to change when she meets a stray mutt who’s often referred to as ‘the Tramp’ (voiced by Justin Theroux), who informs her that she isn’t going to be the center of her owners’ universe anymore because they’re about to have a baby, and as he puts it, “When the baby moves in, the dog moves out”. Sure enough, Jim and Darling end up having a baby girl named Lulu and Lady soon finds herself getting much less attention than she used to. To make matters worse, an incident in which Lady gets into trouble with Darling’s dog-hating Aunt Sarah (Yvette Nicole Brown) while Jim and Darling are away results in her ending up out in the streets without a collar and far from home. Thus, when she eventually reunites with Tramp, he offers to help her get home and begins to show her everything that he experiences as a street dog all while avoiding Elliot the local dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez), who’s hellbent on capturing Tramp and putting him in the pound. And in the process, an unexpected bit of romance starts to blossom between this most unlikely pair.

Like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before it, Lady and the Tramp is another case of these recent live-action Disney remakes where, admittedly, most of its big changes are cosmetic in nature. For starters, instead of rarely showing their faces like in the original, Jim and Darling are featured a lot more prominently in this version whereas Aunt Sarah plays a lesser role than she did in the animated film in favor of a generally expanded role for the dogcatcher as the new main antagonist. But easily the biggest change comes via Aunt Sarah’s pair of Siamese Cats, who receive a considerably major overhaul due to their animated counterparts often being considered as racist stereotypes complete with a new song, ‘What a Shame’. The story, meanwhile, is basically the same as the original with the exact same story beats, from the troublesome rat that constantly pesters the family to Lady’s brief tenure in the pound where she learns ‘the truth’ about the Tramp. And unlike the other recent live-action Disney remakes, this one doesn’t really do much to update the story from a modern perspective outside of the previously mentioned revision of the Siamese Cats and the fact that Jim and Darling are a biracial couple. However, this new film still does a very nice job when it comes to its overall handling of this story and consistently maintains the same pleasant atmosphere of its animated counterpart. Yes, even that iconic spaghetti scene is still beautifully executed even with a live-action/CGI coat of paint.

A lot of this has to do with the film’s unique method of bringing its animal characters to life. While it clearly could’ve been quite easy to just have all the dogs portrayed solely through CGI since that is what many films tend to do nowadays for animals, Lady and the Tramp instead manages to go the extra mile by casting real dogs (many of them rescues), with the utterly adorable duo of rescues Rose and Monte taking on the title roles. And while the film does obviously use CG to have them talk and to give them digital doubles for certain sequences, it’s so well implemented that it’s often legitimately rather hard to distinguish between scenes where the dogs are either real or fully CG. It also helps that Lady and the Tramp are given an excellent duo to voice them in Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux, respectively, as both do a wonderful job in making these two incredibly lovable and effortlessly charismatic while also sporting some lovely chemistry. They’re then backed by an equally solid supporting voice cast headlined by the likes of Sam Elliott as Trusty the old bloodhound and Janelle Monáe as Tramp’s flirtatious friend Peg the Pekingese (Monáe, of course, performs the classic ditty that is ‘He’s a Tramp’ and also helped write the Siamese Cats’ new song). As for the film’s human cast, Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons have solid chemistry that’s on par with Thompson and Theroux as Jim and Darling even if they still end up playing the same generally passive roles that their characters had in the original. After that, you have some nice supporting turns from Yvette Nicole Brown as Aunt Sarah despite her significantly reduced role in this version of the story and Adrian Martinez as the dogcatcher, who manages to be an effectively menacing villain without being too campy.

Many of these recent live-action Disney remakes have extensively used CGI to help bring the fantastical worlds of their stories to life. Lady and the Tramp is not one of those films since, just like the original, it is still very much an old-fashioned love story set in a practically picturesque Midwestern town like the ones that Walt Disney himself grew up in. As such, its use of CGI is a lot more limited compared to the other films of its subgenre which, even as someone who has loved all these recent Disney remakes, I have to admit is a nice and refreshing change of pace when it comes to these films. In other words, it could be argued that this new version of Lady and the Tramp eschews what has become the traditional process of remaking a Disney classic in favor of a pleasantly nostalgic ‘back to basics’ approach. However, if there is one thing that this film has in common with the other recent live-action Disney remakes, it’s that it’ll ultimately once again be the subject of controversy amongst those who are fully against this current cinematic trend. It also doesn’t help that this version of Lady and the Tramp doesn’t really do much to update its story for a new generation outside of abolishing some racist stereotypes. Ultimately, though, while it may not necessarily be the best of these live-action Disney remakes, Lady and the Tramp still thoroughly succeeds at being an immensely heartwarming crowd-pleaser thanks in large part to its extensive use of actual dogs instead of CG creations. But if you are one of those folks who still prefers the animated incarnations of these Disney classics, you’ll be pleased to know that the original Lady and the Tramp is also readily available for your streaming pleasures on Disney+. In fact, the same can be said for all the Disney classics that have received remakes these past few years. I’ve always argued that these remakes can peacefully co-exist with their animated counterparts and I’m pleased to say that Disney+ is now proving that this is, indeed, possible.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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