Over the past decade, Disney has made an obscene amount of money at the box office churning out live-action remakes or re-imaginings of their animated classics. The $1 billion box office success of Alice in Wonderland opened the door for Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Christopher Robin, and this year alone Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King. With the exception of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, I’ve been underwhelmed or flat-out furious at these paint-by-numbers remakes that too often aim to plug famous faces (regardless of their singing abilities) into the storyboards of long-loved gems. Along the way, they lost a lot of the imagination and spirit that made them special. Now comes Lady and the Tramp, a live-action remake of the 1955 animated feature. But this one’s not coming to a theater near you. It’s only coming to Disney+. To me, this seemed a red flag, like Disney was warning this would be more bland, thoughtless, or flat-out offensive than the other remakes they trotted out this year. With a smirk, I sat down to watch this new Lady and the Tramp, and I experienced a Peter Rabbit moment. My cynical assumptions were proven wrong, as this live-action remake proved to be absolutely charming.
Directed by Charlie Bean, Lady and the Tramp combines live-action human and animal performances with some solid CGI to create an early-20th-century world, where dogs can talk to each other and possess rich inner lives. As before, the film centers on Lady (Tessa Thompson), a cute and spoiled cocker spaniel who lives in a lovely home with her owners, Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons). Theirs is a life of bliss until a scruffy mutt (Justin Theroux) intrudes into her well-groomed yard and warns her, “When a baby moves in, a dog moves out.”
This proves painfully true once the sneering Aunt Sarah (Yvette Nicole Brown) comes to housesit and decides Lady is too much to handle. Out on the streets, she is muzzled and terrified when she unexpectedly reunites with the notorious tramp. Despite their rocky start, he shows a soft spot for the scared house pet and not only promises to get her back home but also to show her the freedom and fun of being a “street dog.” There will be music and spaghetti, then plenty of drama that rips them apart once more. The beats and some key lines are familiar, but the clever script by Kari Granlund and Andrew Bujalski (Support the Girls) give a fresh polish to this old tale, as does a cast studded with stars and stellar character actors.
Sam Elliott brings a dusty but warm rumble as the bloodhound Trusty, with his sidekick sniffer Old Reliable. Scottish actress Ashley Jensen (Extras) brings a brash brogue to the pugnacious Scottish Terrier, Jacqueline. Benedict Wong offers a sweet dopiness as the bulldog partner to Peg, the sultry Pekingese originated by Lady and the Tramp songwriter and celebrated songstress Peggy Lee. In this version, Janelle Monáe steps into Lee’s big shoes, filling them with a smooth swagger and plenty of energy as she belts out the swinging number, “He’s a Tramp.”
Playing the human leads, Mann and Clemmons are sweet as sugar, especially the latter when she lays her silky voice into some of the original’s classic songs, like “La La Lu” and “Peace on Earth.” Brown is a comic delight as the snooty Aunt Sarah. Meanwhile, Adrian Martinez brings a tight-lip intensity as the film’s antagonist, a dog catcher devoted to catching that wily tramp. But the best performances of humans as humans goes to F. Murray Abraham and Broad City’s Arturo Castro, who give their absolute all in the iconic “Bella Notte” sequence.
Up to this point in the film, I was having fun. The knitting of CGI and real-life dogs is not seamless, but is solid enough that it wasn’t distracting. Moreover, the animators on Lady and the Tramp managed to muster more personality from their real-life inspirations than those on The Lion King remake. The anatomy of the characters felt true to life, but the animation keeping their expressions subtle made these canine leads feel more real. A slight cock of the head, or the lowering of a furry brow, or a chuckle accompanied by a tongue dangling loose and carefree made it easy to imagine any of these darling doggos as one you might have at home. They’ve managed to avoid the uncanny valley. So, I was charmed and feeling fuzzy warmness in the cold cockles of heart. Then, came this scene where I realized just how hooked I was as tears spilled down my face.
At this point, we’ve seen the tramp chased through traffic, called names, and treated as an object of disgust. We’ve seen Lady be scolded (unfairly), threatened by a snarling stray, and called a “bad dog.” Then they come to the back door of Tony’s restaurant. There, a waiter (Castro) lovingly calls the tramp “Butch,” but warns the restaurant is too busy to give him scraps tonight. Then, he sees Lady. When his boss, Tony (Abraham), joins him at the door, the two are inspired to create the perfect dinner date for these pups in love. They set up a makeshift table with a tablecloth and a menu. They serve them the house special (spaghetti with extra meatballs!), and they sing to them. They sing their hearts out, and it’s not just a beautiful song. It’s not just a heartwarming thing to see these two pups, who’ve been battered around find a moment of bliss, it’s also seeing this kindness extended. Castro and Abraham dance on the line of cartoonish performances, but it works. The whole thing is luminous as the moon that shines down on this scene and bella notte.
However, at the heart of Lady and the Tramp’s success is the performances of Thompson and Theroux. She plays Lady as less snooty than Barbara Luddy did in the original, which is a wise move. She still sounds posh and proud, but also playful, which leaves the door of her heart open to the appeal of the impulsive tramp. As for this unnamed dog, Theroux’s voice is vibrant with a roguish appeal, like Indiana Jones or Burt Reynolds. You can hear his smirk in some lines, which makes when he’s sincere all the more impactful. Together, their banter is bright and thrilling, like if you closed your eyes this could be a dazzling rom-com about two beautiful people from different sides of the tracks finding love with each other. Disney, if you’re reading this, I would watch that movie too!
So here we are. I, a cynic about Disney’s relentless barrage of live-action remakes, adored their straight to streaming one. Lady in the Tramp is an absolutely charming romp, alive with whimsical and warm performances, studded with nostalgia and sweet songs, and fueled by a love story that’s as enchanting as ever.
Lady and the Tramp hits Disney+ on November 12.
Header Image Source: Disney