Lady and the Tramp Review

The slew of live-action and computer-animated remakes of Disney’s hand-drawn animated classics have largely managed to feel creatively bereft, but they have never been entirely pointless. Why does a remake of Aladdin or Dumbo or The Lion King exist? If nothing else, to further fill the coffers of the Walt Disney Company, so that its executives can pull a Scrooge McDuck and dive through the cash. It’s a cynical view, and arguably a point that doesn’t impact anyone who isn’t a shareholder or investor in the company. But these movies exist for at least that one reason.

What, exactly, is the point of a streaming-only remake of an animated film? This question exists now for us to ponder thanks to the upcoming arrival of Disney+, a company-owned streaming service that will house hundreds of older films, thousands of episodes of TV shows, and new content such as Lady and the Tramp. No, not the 1955 animated film about two dogs from different sides of the tracks in small-town America who fall in love. This is a live-action/CG hybrid remake of that same story, premiering on November 12 on Disney+. Though the service itself is designed to hopefully make Disney lots of money, what would the point be of a film like this, one of many that you can watch once the service is available? It can’t make Lion King money or even Dumbo money. The best thing to say about Lady and the Tramp ‘19 is that it’s tolerable, more so than the other Disney remakes released this year. But that’s not saying a whole lot.

If you’re familiar with the original animated film, the remake directed by Charlie Bean will largely be recognizable. Both films are set in the early years of the 20th century in a picturesque city on the Mississippi River. Our heroine is the Cocker Spaniel puppy Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson), gifted to Darling (Kiersey Clemons) by her husband Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) one Christmas morning. Lady’s on the catbird seat for a while, being the love of her owners’ lives…until Darling gets pregnant and the arrival of her newborn understandably shifts priorities around. Once she feels unloved, Lady soon falls for a raffish mutt nicknamed Tramp (Justin Theroux). As Lady goes on an unexpected journey around the town, they get closer and Tramp wonders if maybe a domesticated lifestyle is the best way forward.

The script, written by Kari Granlund and Andrew Bujalski (yes, of Computer Chess and Support The Girls), covers almost entirely the same ground as the original despite being a half-hour longer at 103 minutes. Lady still has her neighborhood friends Jock and Trusty; Lady still runs afoul of Darling’s stuffy Aunt Sarah (played by the always delightful Yvette Nicole Brown); and Lady still winds up in the pound where she learns that Tramp’s spent time with a few other young pups in his day. Hell, Lady still encounters a pair of Siamese cat twins, though it will likely not surprise you to learn that they sing a new song, as opposed to the painfully retrograde and offensive one from the original. 

Though there are minor shifts in the story, they’re just that: minor. Jock is now no longer male, but a female dog voiced by Ashley Jensen. Aunt Sarah, while still obnoxious, is treated as a pain by Jim Dear and Darling, and she barely gets to interact with the young couple’s baby (she babysat for the child in the animated film, in a fairly key plot point). The updates extend to the songs, as well: “He’s a Tramp”, sung by Janelle Monae, has some new lyrics, for example. The most memorable song of the film is still there, however, as the owner of a local Italian restaurant croons “Bella Notte” while Lady and the Tramp share some noodles and a nuzzle. (I would tell you who sings “Bella Notte”, but some things, you should discover for yourself.)

It’s not that Lady and the Tramp ‘19 is bad, per se. Bean, whose last credit was The Lego Ninjago Movie, does a decent enough job capturing a blend of old-fashioned America straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting and more modernist tendencies. (The way Jim Dear, for example, interacts with an antagonistic and overzealous dogcatcher is mildly humorous, but when he closes an awkward conversation by saying, “Thank you for…whatever this was”, it doesn’t sound like pre-World War I-era banter.) Some of the film’s updated touches are also quite charming — Joseph Trapanese brings a jazzy feel to the score, a pleasant way to refresh the low-key music of the original. The cast is mostly fine, essentially singing a cover version of a well-worn song: Theroux and Thompson are solid as the leads, and Jensen and Sam Elliott fit into their canine roles easily. 

Of course, to discuss the voice work in Lady and the Tramp ‘19 is to discuss what undoubtedly, unavoidably does not work: the CGI meant to make it look like the dogs’ lips are moving. If you must make a live-action Lady and the Tramp, this is likely the only way to make the core romance work, because how else would they communicate? The problem, though, is that word “If”. No one needed to make this, and the CG effects to make the dogs’ lips move is always unnerving, in spite of the talented actors doing their best to make you forget that. (Though their appearance is brief, as it was in the original, the CG on the Siamese cats is particularly rough.)

All this said, Lady and the Tramp ‘19 has the unique and not entirely exciting honor of being the best Disney remake of the year, meaning simply that it is the least awful of those films. But it fails to achieve what the best overall Disney remake, the 2016 redo of Pete’s Dragon (which is quite a good movie indeed), does. That film took the premise and title of an older property and made something totally new. While those behind the scenes here do an able enough job of remaking the original, they could have taken the title and premise and made something different and arguably better than the first film. In the end, all they’ve done is soften an already fairly soft animated film without making it distinctive. This Lady and the Tramp could’ve been worse, true; it should’ve been better.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.