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.
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.