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Non-Review Review: Lady and the Tramp (2019)

Lady and the Tramp represents a new frontier for Disney’s reimaginings of their animated classics.

The studio has had great success adapting those older films for younger audiences with a hybrid of live action and computer-generated remakes, with Aladdin and The Lion King ranking among the highest grossing movies of last year. Mulan looked like it might have been on course to continue the trend, and the studio is working away on a new version of The Little Mermaid. However, what makes Lady and the Tramp so interesting is that it is not going to be one of those theatrical blockbusters. Instead, it was released directly on Disney+, the company’s streaming service.

A completely identical meatball game.

There are two ways of looking at this. Disney might have been hoping to give Disney+ a bit of a boost by offering an exclusive brand-name and star-driven family-friendly film. Alternatively, the studio might have accepted that Lady and the Tramp was never a viable theatrical release to begin with, whether because it didn’t scratch the right nostalgic itch or because of the quality of the adaptation simply wasn’t up to snuff. In reality, it seems like a combination of the two factors.

Lady and the Tramp is fairly standard as these adaptations go. It is hurt by the push to verisimilitude and by the decision to expand a tight animated story into a bloated live action one. It is also very visually, aurally and tonally flat. It’s a film that seems built around the ethos of “just enough”, often feeling like a television movie that has somehow earned a theatrical special effects budget. Lady and the Tramp is not the worst of the Disney live action adaptations, but it may be the most lifeless.

No far horizons.

To a certain extent, it feels almost redundant to criticise Lady and the Tramp in the same way that it feels redundant to criticise some of the Marvel Studios films. Disney have generally built a well-oiled production machine that produces content to specification. Bugs tend to occur across the line, folded into the rigid development process. There are very few novel or distinct problems with Lady and the Tramp. The audience pressing play on the film largely knows what they are going to get, because the assembly process is a cinematic conveyor belt.

Still, it is worth reiterating the most obvious complaints. Like The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp suffers from the decision to render its characters as photo-realistic dogs. Animated characters are inherently more expressive, anthropomorphised and exaggerated so that they can move their faces in a way that can be read as human emotions. This is not possible with dogs that actually look like dogs, as their eyes and mouths can only move so far without pushing the film into the realm of the uncanny.

Similarly, Lady and the Trump suffers from the strange need to stretch a seventy-odd minute story out to over one-hundred minutes. This is a problem with a lot of live action adaptations, and none of them have figured out how to justify the extended runtimes. Beauty and the Beast added a completely surplus subplot about about Belle’s mother. Aladdin at least tried to beef up the characterisation of Jafar and Jasmine, even if it couldn’t tie that back narratively or thematically. The Lion King opted to just let familiar scenes run longer, slowly dragging time out.

Lady and the Tramp was always a slight story, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. There is a lot to be said for low-stakes storytelling, particularly in an era that tends to push its blockbusters towards the bombastic. However, the animated film never outstayed its welcome. The live action scene often seems to be flailing and stalling for time, as if spinning its computer-generated thumbs in the hope of running down some imaginary clock.

Garden dog.

Indeed, there is something vaguely cynical in all of this, a sense that Lady and the Tramp doesn’t exist because the original needed to be retold. Instead, the film seems to exist in the context of the wave of modern dog-centric storytelling, along with films like A Dog’s Journey or The Art of Racing in the Rain. The film is even shot like one of those movies, with the saturation turned way up and a very simplistic approach to framing and composition. Joseph Trapanese’s score is on hand to assure audiences of what they should be feeling in any given moment.

Lady and the Tramp also suffers from the cynicism that is the bane of so much modern family cinema, a desperate insecurity about earnestness and a reluctance to take things seriously. Lady and the Tramp awkwardly insulates any real emotional content with a knowing irony and winking self-awareness – it is so afraid of being seen as corny or cheesy that it preemptively disarms the audience by making any snarky jokes ahead of time.

A ruff time of it.

This is most obvious in the movie’s recreation of the most iconic sequence in the original, in which the two characters share spaghetti in a back alley. That scene is the scene that most people remember from Lady and the Tramp, and has soaked into popular consciousness to the point that even people who haven’t seen the movie know what it is and how it works. If Disney want to make a nostalgic tribute to Lady and the Tramp, that sequence is the cornerstone.

Lady and the Tramp refuses to play it straight, to embrace the weird sincerity of an eccentric Italian restaurant owner who decides to pull out all the stops for two stray dogs. In no universe does that scene make any logical sense, but that’s the appeal of it. It is corny and silly and romantic and illogical. However, Lady and the Tramp spends the entire sequence with the title characters talking about how weird it is, and thus stripping the sequence of an magic. Suddenly, it’s not a romantic sequence at all, but a bad joke that goes on and on and on.

Fur-ther together.

This is a shame, because there’s a lot of talent involved. Indeed, a cynic might observe that one of the appeals of this sort of film from a studio’s perspective is the ability to rope in top-tier celebrities for a few recording sessions rather than having to justify keeping them on set for an extended period. The primary cast of Lady and the Tramp includes Justin Theroux, Tessa Thompson, Janelle Monae and Sam Elliot, which sounds like a Best Picture nominee. However, having them voice talking dogs undoubtedly kept the cost low.

(The same is true of the human cast, with a number of recognisable faces drafted in for small roles that would only have required a day-or-two of film. Clancy Brown and Ken Jeong manage to get billed in the opening credits despite each only each getting a couple of lines in a short scene. There’s something vaguely calculated in all of this, speaking to the sense in which Lady and the Tramp feels like a film designed to approximate a much more lavish production, but in a much more affordable way.)

Lady and the Tramp is, like its lead characters, ultimately rather lifeless and dull.

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