×

Film Review: ‘Lady and the Tramp’

As muted as its premiere on the Disney+ platform might suggest, this remake of the 1955 dog-meets-dog romance is both inoffensive and inessential.

Director:
Charlie Bean
With:
Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Thomas Mann, Kiersey Clemons, Adrien Martinez, Janelle Monáe
Release Date:
Nov 12, 2019

1 hour 43 minutes

In the age of streaming media, what’s the contemporary answer to the cheap, disposable, direct-to-video Disney sequels that used to clog up VHS shelves in decades of yore? The answer may look something like “Lady and the Tramp,” the latest of many nominal “live-action” remakes of beloved titles from the studio’s animated canon — but the first to bypass theaters, bowing directly on the company’s glossy new Disney+ VOD platform. The difference is felt, which is not to say this largely conservative update of the 1955 puppy-love romp is appreciably worse than its big-screen 2019 predecessors. It’s as creatively anemic and blandly calculated as, say, this summer’s billion-grossing “The Lion King,” with which it also shares some hinky technical issues: Suffice it to say that even on a smaller screen, attributing anthropomorphic qualities to photoreal critters remains a Disney stumbling block.

Yet after all the star-spangled, spectacle-oriented lacquer of “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Dumbo,” even the least discriminating kid viewers can hardly fail to notice that “Lady and the Tramp” is a more modest production in every dimension — as befits the sweetly slender, grounded fantasy of the original IP, but not so much the more bombastic standards of the modern Disney blockbuster. In theaters, young audiences with no nostalgic attachment to a 64-year-old film might have been mildly befuddled by a canine adventure with less rapid-fire quippery and less elaborate setpieces than even the “Secret Life of Pets” movies; on TV, however, it might pass muster as a more, well, domesticated diversion.

Popular on Variety

That very gentleness makes “Lady and the Tramp” one of the more agreeable entries in this self-plundering Disney subgenre: Directed with a kind of sunny placidity by Charlie Bean (shifting into a lower gear from 2017’s “The Lego Ninjago Movie”), the new film has no delusions of grandeur, though that’s equally a polite way of saying it doesn’t make much of a case for itself. What it does have is a scraggly pound’s worth of cute mutts, and as with such recent pooch-packing family entertainments as “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home,” the simple “awwww” factor is intended to carry it through an awful lot of rote storytelling.

Yet even that can’t-miss asset is compromised by the complications of bringing animated characters to all-talking, all-barking, all-bounding life. In an initially encouraging nod to old-school technique — following “The Lion King’s” eerie, all-CGI jungle of lifelike but dead-eyed beasts — the dogs in “Lady and the Tramp” are played by real-life pups, only for their facial expressions and mouth movements to be digitally distorted to match their wholly human dialogue. It’s an ungainly halfway measure, occasionally masked by shadow and shrewd camera movement, that all too often lands the film firmly in the uncanine valley, so to speak. The disbelief one easily suspends when watching two adorable cartoon dogs smooch over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs returns with reinforcements when we see their real-life replicas manipulated into the same move. “How do dogs kiss, anyway?” is not a question one should be asking in the middle of “Lady and the Tramp.”

That persistent distraction aside, this is very much business as before, with only negligible tweaks to the original film’s narrative made by screenwriters Kari Granlund and Andrew Bujalski — the latter a leftfield choice for the assignment on the face of it, though the crown prince of American mumblecore leaves not so much as a pawprint on proceedings. The setting remains the early 20th century, with the locale shifted to Georgia to enable one new, scenic paddle-steamer setpiece; once again, liquid-eyed cocker spaniel puppy Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson) is adopted by a doting young couple (Kiersey Clemons and Thomas Mann), only to be put out when the arrival of a human baby displaces her as the apple of their eyes.

Enter the Tramp of the title, a nameless, shaggy mongrel voiced with doleful gruffness by Justin Theroux, who informs the spoiled pedigree pup of her place in the human hierarchy: “When the baby moves in, the dog moves out.” Accidentally unleashed into a world beyond picket fences, Lady counts on the Tramp to show her the ways of the street and — despite much audible chemistry between the leads — the ways of the heart. Cue moderate hijinks and moderate peril, with a dimly determined animal-control agent (Adrian Martinez) perennially on their tail. “Street dogs are just like us: they just aren’t lucky enough to have homes,” Lady observes solemnly, lest any small viewers miss the vague social conscience of the enterprise. Perhaps it’s this inclination toward pedantic overstatement that makes the film nearly 30 minutes longer than its predecessor, despite being, if anything, lower on incident: The pacing could use a little more nip and bite throughout.

Other technical contributions are brightly generic, keeping proceedings as close to cartoon flatness as real life will permit. Peggy Lee’s original song score is given a few tweaks: most sensibly and inevitably, “The Siamese Cat Song,” with its dated yellowface stereotyping, has been given the chop, replaced by an unmemorably bouncy (literal) jazz-cat number performed by two mischievous tabbies. They are, unlike the film’s dog ensemble, wholly and rather hideously computerized creations: an irksome aesthetic inconsistency that at least makes the film’s dog-lovers-only credentials quite clear. Lee’s torchy trifle “He’s a Tramp” fares a little better, given some soulful hangdog swagger by Janelle Monáe as another jaded street mutt. Indeed, her brief vocal turn may be the liveliest thing about an exercise so sedate and sterile that, in one curious departure from the original, our eponymous canine lovers no longer have any puppies of their own. In this unsettling, semi-digital Disney universe, no dog truly has its day.

Film Review: 'Lady and the Tramp'

Reviewed online, London, Nov. 8, 2019. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production: A Disney presentation of a Taylor Made production. Producer: Brigham Taylor. Executive producer: Diane L. Sabatini.

Crew: Director: Charlie Bean. Screenplay: Andrew Bujalski, Kari Granlund. Camera (color): Enrique Chediak. Editor: Melissa Bretherton. Music: Joseph Trapanese.

With: Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Thomas Mann, Kiersey Clemons, Adrien Martinez, Janelle Monáe, Yvette Nicole Brown, Sam Elliott, Ashley Jensen, F. Murray Abraham, Benedict Wong.

More Film

  • Will Smith and Martin Lawrence star

    Box Office: 'Bad Boys for Life,' '1917' Shoot Past $100 Million

    Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are showing plenty of staying power at North American multiplexes with about $31 million for its second weekend, estimates showed Saturday. Sony’s third installment of the “Bad Boys” action comedy franchise is crossing the $100 million mark at the box office on Saturday, its ninth day of release, and will [...]

  • Dinner in America

    'Dinner in America': Film Review

    There are bits of “Repo Man,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and other literally or just philosophically “punk rock” cult comedies in the DNA of Adam Carter Rehmeier’s rude yet ingratiating “Dinner in America” — and mercifully none whatsoever here of his 2011 first feature “The Bunny Game,” a shrilly monotonous “extreme” horror for which all is now [...]

  • AtmosphereSundance Film Festival preperations, Park City,

    Sundance: Study Finds Lack of Inclusion at Film Festivals

    A study by the Time’s Up Foundation and USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has found that women and people of color are vastly underrepresented at film festivals worldwide. The new report, “Inclusion at Film Festivals,” examined the gender, race, and ethnicity of narrative film directors, film festival programmers, and executives from 2017-2019. The study was released [...]

  • Worth

    'Worth': Film Review

    As a child, when future TV host Fred Rogers would see scary images on the news, his mother would tell him, “Look for the heroes.” If Fred were a boy today, she’d add, “Look for Ken Feinberg.” Feinberg, the lawyer at the center of Sara Colangelo’s “Worth,” specializes in putting a price tag on human [...]

  • Mika Ronkainen and Merja Aakko

    ‘All the Sins’ Producers to Broaden Spanish-Language Ties (EXCLUSIVE)

    GÖTEBORG, Sweden: “All the Sins”’ Finnish co-writers and creators Mika Ronkainen and Merja Aakko, winners of last year’s Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize for outstanding Nordic screenplay, are developing for MRK Matila Röhr Productions an adoption drama set between Finland and Guatemala. Based on a true story, the six-part series “Act of Telling” (a [...]

  • A still from Vivos by Ai

    'Vivos': Film Review

    To the individual enduring it, sorrow seems a lonely, defenseless emotion, one from which others are too quick to look away. Shared and felt en masse, however, it can become something different: a galvanizing force, a wall, not diminished in pain but not diminished by it either. Ai Weiwei’s stirring new documentary “Vivos” runs on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content