The much-awaited Disney+ launched yesterday, and with it, a slew of exclusive films and shows – tucked among them is a live-action remake of 1955’s Lady and the Tramp — I know what you’re thinking; the inundation of live-action Disney remakes continues, but lest we forget, the original was a personal favorite of Walt Disney himself, and even among the herd of the unnecessary remakes (don’t see also: Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, Jon Favreau’s The Lion King), this one’s a keeper, but not for the reasons you may expect.
Here is where I’d regurgitate the story in capsule form, but why bother when this is familiar territory? The fact of the matter is that there is very little new in this take on Lady and the Tramp, and the truth is, that’s wonderful. Too many of the Disney remakes have made pathetic attempts to overemphasize “modern qualities” in their characters (don’t see also: Emma Watson and/or Josh Gad in Beauty and the Beast), whereas in two of their best, The Jungle Book and Cinderella, it’s as much about honoring the past as it is looking to the future — rather like Walt’s vision, no?
Director Charlie Bean (The LEGO Ninjago Movie) makes his live-action debut with this film, playing it as straight as Sir Kenneth Branagh did with Cinderella, not once making fun of the film’s innocence and delight, and rather expounding on the emotion it brings the audience. His knowledge of CG animation also helps in the digital additions to the real animals portraying such characters — this isn’t like Tim Burton’s Dumbo (I know, I reviewed it well. I was wrong.); the animals in question look adorably natural to the viewer. Performances reflect that, too — Tessa Thompson (Avengers: Endgame) plays Lady warmly and to her own strengths, rather than either impersonating prior actress Barbara Luddy or trying to fix what isn’t broken. Justin Theroux (Wanderlust) does the same; he’s charming as Tramp, but also gives him a longing soul in his characterization. Additional canine cast members feature the note-perfectly cast Sam Elliot (A Star Is Born) as bumbling bloodhound Trusty and Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures) taking up where Peggy Lee left off as Peg — she of the song He’s A Tramp. Rewritten as a girl is Scottish terrier Jock (now short for Jacqueline), aptly played by Scottish comedienne Ashley Jensen (After Life), and while it’s a needless change, it still works, and quite well. An additional animal character is Bull, played by Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange), finally getting to use his natural English accent — appropriately, as an English bulldog!
Human characters are in fine form, too — blind casting doesn’t work well, in my eyes, for period pieces, so it comes off a little bit Once Upon A Time for me to see it here, but the actors behind them are putting their hearts full of love into this, and that sells their performance, so such an argument is basically invalid. Lady’s owners, Jim Dear (Thomas Mann, The Highwaymen) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons, Hearts Beat Loud) are adorable as a couple who never stop falling in love with each other, while minor villain Aunt Sarah (Yvette Nicole Brown, Community) does the atypical crazy cat lady/dog hater to a T. The real lynchpin of the equation, though, comes from Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus), not as a villain, but as Tony, the serenading owner of the iconic Italian restaurant where the classic “Bella Notte” scene takes place. It brought a genuine tear to my eye, as it will for anyone else viewing it!
As said previously, while the movie doesn’t deviate from the core storyline or the 1890’s setting, what changes are made are largely welcome in my eyes — among them (without spoiling), giving Tramp a backstory, just enough not to overstay its welcome and still explain, adding a definite villain (of sorts) and giving a lovely twist at the end of the second act that only fuels the lead-in to the conclusion. One change is a little perplexing to me; the reworking of Aunt Sarah’s villainous cats — how is it less offensive for them to be voiced by and performed as African American rather than Asian? It’s just mind-boggling to me; who stands to gain by such a change?
Still, with all being said, this version of Lady and the Tramp is wonderful fun and a loving reminder of simpler times. I know, it’s nothing new, but it’s kindly and charming; just the kind of tonic needed right now, and a lovely way to open up Disney+. I look forward to all the service has to offer now and in the future.