If the point of Lady and the Tramp is to convince us that Disney+ is as good a forever home as any for cynical live-action remakes, then it makes it well.
It’s becoming a bit played-out to remind people that Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes are cynical and soulless efforts to rifle through nostalgic pockets, but here we are again, I suppose. And after Aladdin, Dumbo and The Lion King, which all came out this year, Lady and the Tramp (Disney+) feels like a depressingly on-brand way for Disney to lure subscribers into their new vault of timeless treasures. The only noteworthy thing about Charlie Bean’s faithful sprucing-up of the 1955 animated original is that it’s intermittently charming enough that you can’t really bring yourself to dislike it.
Well, that and the real-life dogs, who stand in for the previously inked versions of the titular Lady (Tessa Thompson) and the Tramp (Justin Theroux). Mostly, anyway. Unconvincing CGI meddling contorts the doggos’ faces when they speak, which they do quite a bit, and the effect is noticeably horrifying. While I have no proof of this, I’m also convinced that in some sequences the pooches are sprung entirely from a computer in the vague hope we wouldn’t notice.
Noticing is one thing — but do we care? There aren’t very many reasons to. The story’s framework remains unchanged. In the early 1900s — this time in a racially panoramic Savannah, Georgia — Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) gifts his wife Darling (Kiersey Clemons) a cute cocker spaniel who quickly becomes a treasured part of the family. That’s until Darling falls pregnant and the couple absconds for a while, leaving Lady to be menaced by psychopathic CGI cats and eventually flee to the fake-looking streets where she falls in with a streetwise mutt. They enjoy various romantic adventures while staying one step ahead of a menacing dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez) and eventually share a slap-up meal for two that brings them closer both physically and emotionally.
You can look at screenshots of the iconic beats side by side and see how lifeless this version of Lady and the Tramp feels next to its brighter, lighter, and more personable predecessor. Virtually all of the pleasure is in the casting. Thompson and Theroux make for serviceable if not wholly convincing leads, but Ashley Jensen is a delight as Scottish terrier Jock, and Sam Elliott is perfectly cast as old reliable bloodhound Trusty. The script by Kari Granlund and Andrew Bujalski surprises on occasion with a few tasty morsels in the form of some well-timed quips, but it’s mostly bland kibble scattered to lead the pooches from point A to B.
The songs are so few and far between that they might as well not be there, and there’s such an awkward shifting of gears whenever a ditty starts up that the overall effect is as distracting as the digital embellishments. This doesn’t strike me as a story in need of much embellishment in the first place, and certainly not of the strained, computer-generated kind that bleeds all the wholesome color out of the warm Christmassy fable at the film’s core. Sometimes this Lady and the Tramp is kind enough to offer a glimpse of that treacly heart, and you can’t help but be appreciative whenever it does. But you can see what’s underneath the gloss because Disney have demanded so many pounds of consumerist flesh that there are only bones left to gnaw on. Go fetch.