To put it mildly, 2019 has been a poor year for Disney remakes. While some have earned strong financial success, not one of them has held up to scrutiny. The first of these remakes, Dumbo, buried its title character under a bloated narrative. Elsewhere, there was Aladdin, which exposed its director’s inability to handle lavish musical numbers. Lastly, we had The Lion King, which functioned more as a horrifying tech demo than anything else. So it is a relief to say that Lady and the Tramp, the fourth of Disney’s 2019 remakes, is less painful of an experience than its peers.
There are various reasons as to why the film is hardly aggravating. But perhaps the main one is that its source material was already quite simplistic. Of course, there are a plethora of talking animals in the original. But it spends most of the time restricting the animals from doing anything else fantastical. Whether that involves the Tramp (Justin Theroux) tricking a dogcatcher or Trusty (Sam Elliott) struggling with his sense of smell, this updated version successfully captures that same idea. And once again, the plot focuses on Lady (Tessa Thompson) as she drifts from the center of attention in her human family. Combine all of that and you have a remake that has fewer chances to overhaul the original than most.
Additionally, Lady and the Tramp finds ways to adapt the original into the modern age. One drastic change it makes is during Lady’s messy encounter with a pair of cats. Quite infamously, the cats in the animated original were two Siamese cats that leaned heavily into cartoonish stereotypes. If that was not enough, they have an irritating song to finish it off: “The Siamese Cat Song”. Thankfully, this movie scraps both the Siamese cats and the “The Siamese Cat Song” itself. True, the scene still involves outsider cats threatening to ruin the house. But this time, we now have a pair of nondescript cats and an original piece titled “What a Shame”.
Disregarding that, the casting of the humans is more inclusive than one would expect from an American period piece. For one thing, the central human couple (Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons) is an interracial one. After all, this is certainly not something that would be included nonchalantly in a 1950s American film. Moreover, its supporting cast largely consists of people of color, with the majority bringing in a fair amount of charm. In particular, the characters of Jock and Bull make an impression because of how well Ashley Jensen and Benedict Wong conjure up easygoing personalities.
However, this remake is mostly not an embarrassing misfire because it is actually a bland one. Disappointingly, a lot of that is down to Andrew Bujalski and Kari Granlund’s weak screenplay. The 1955 original had quite an ambling narrative structure, to begin with. Meanwhile, this version takes that aimless feeling to new extremes. Given Bujalski’s experience in making films where characters constantly hang out, his involvement should not be a shock. But what is surprising is that the delicate character work he crafted in movies like Support the Girls and Funny Ha Ha is nowhere to be found here. As a result, what started out as a charming but insubstantial movie transforms into a genuinely tedious one.
Another issue plaguing Lady and the Tramp is its handling of stand-out scenes from the original. One moment that has lodged itself into my brain is Lady’s visit to the dog pound. Just from the dogs crying as they howl into the night, it is a heartbreaking moment in the most effective way. While most would point to the “Bella Notte” sequence as the most iconic scene, I would point to this one as the moment that will linger in my mind for years to come. Too bad, then, that director Charlie Bean rushes through that part of the script. Simply put, this film’s rendition of the dog pound scene merely exists to jump to the next locale. No more does it feel like an effective way to expand the film’s environments.
As much as I admire its attempts to modernize the original, it would be more impressive if they actually brought in good ideas. Going back to the “What a Shame” sequence, the only thing going for it is what it lacks: the offensive Asian stereotypes. Outside of that, we have to deal with an extremely repetitive song and two CGI cats that are several renders from completion. And that’s being generous! When it comes to most of the animals, they are hairy enough that their strong facial expressions are somewhat pleasant. But for these two cats, whatever hair that helped the other animals is not present in the slightest. Because of that, their character designs fit horribly in comparison to the elements surrounding it.
Ultimately, this new Lady and the Tramp is a casual but sluggish stroll of a movie that pads itself with superfluous changes. In fact, it continues the recent Disney tradition of having an action-oriented climax that fits badly with what came before. It felt at odds with the established story momentum when Christopher Robin did it, and the same applies to this newer film. By no means is it unattractive in terms of its production design or costumes. Not to mention, some of the secondary characters have their share of delightful moments. Still, it only achieves its status as “The Least Objectionable Disney Remake of the Year” by being the least anything of the bunch. And when you get to be “the least anything of the bunch”, the difference between existing and not existing is pretty small indeed. – Mark Tan
The film stars Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Thomas Mann, Kiersey Clemons, Sam Elliott, Ashley Jensen, Janelle Monáe, and Benedict Wong.