The Lady and the Tramp Remake Proves the Value of Quaint Simplicity

Photo: Disney+.

For warped reasons of splashy attention and an internal need to top themselves, the overfilled four-film 2019 slate of Disney re-imaginings have favored the gaudy, garish, and just plain loud. Granted, flashy noise appears to make money, but it does not say much for the true quality of the picture. With unending charm and quaint simplicity, Disney+’s delightful Lady and the Tramp remake proves the old adage of “less is more.” All year long, its mainstream blockbuster peers tried every costly artificial and technological height to be a blaring chorus of bells and whistles, when all that was really needed were some cute, real animals backed often by a swanky band.

This new film is a wise and modest update to one of Disney’s best romances of its Silver Age. By utilizing actual dogs, many of which are rescued pets at that, with a mild computerized varnish, feels more tangible than fake in one of these Disney re-imaginings for the first time in a long time. This restraint of creative prudence is what defines its humble disposition and winning achievements.

Coming to life from the overhead illustrations of Dean Tschetter, Lady and the Tramp descends upon a stunning Victorian home on Christmas morning in the early 20th century. The young newlywed Jim Dear (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl’s Thomas Mann) gifts his wife Darling (Kiersey Clemons of Hearts Beat Loud) a cocker spaniel puppy. Given the name Lady and voiced by Tessa Thompson, the prized pet—through her bedspace takeovers—endears herself as a member of the family, one that is growing by a human bundle of joy at the same time Lady earns her official collar and tag.

 In what should be a trauma listed right there with Stockholm Syndrome, a new baby will almost always absorb adult time and previously undivided attention away from four-legged best friends, even an easy-to-love one like Lady. Baby moves in. Dog moves out. Like its animated predecessor, this Lady and the Tramp keeps its roots in the imagined psychology and personification of what this might be like from the animal’s perspective.

When a dog-sitting misunderstanding with Aunt Sarah (Community favorite Yvette Nicole Brown) leads to a muzzle purchase and a runaway escape, Lady meets the slick, free-spirited loner Schnauzer, voiced by Justin Theroux, who would come to favor Tramp above his other temporary names around town. He teaches the well-groomed neophyte the owner-less life on the streets avoiding the persistent local dog catcher (Adrian Martinez of Focus). Scrapes lead to scraps and noodles turn into canoodled kinship as the two become close.

Lady and the Tramp gaze above the city at night
Image courtesy of Disney+ and Walt Disney

Family films, animated or otherwise, do enjoy their moments of addressing a societal problem in an approachable fashion. Lady and the Tramp then and now, with its riches-to-rags and rags-to-riches reversals, puts storytelling to the difference between being self-reliant and truly alone without the value of loving relationships. In a way, pets have that two with the shelter and adoption processes. Seeing this cuddly classic story play out with real animals better set off a spike in pet adoptions across the country.

The manifested personal improvement steps of Lady and the Tramp involve audibilizing in different ways. Lady has never asserted herself with a howl while the brash Tramp has never vocalized his broken feelings. She hasn’t found courage and he hasn’t learned to trust others again. Both help each other with those utterances which bring them together. After all just as Darling extols “we’re not a family without you.”

Thanks to its period-era setting and the lively ragtime jazz of its Savannah, Georgia locale, there is a jazzy flair to everything. That pep gives a new pace to the barky banter shared between Theroux and Thompson. The supporting voice cast, led by the dual-threat Janelle Monae, a saucy Benedict Wong, Scotswoman Ashley Jensen, and gristle of Sam Elliott, are excellent and distinctive additions. Strolling and walking on two feet instead of four, even the human actors add little eccentricities to match the light style without anyone being over-the-top whatsoever. By the time Arturo Castro and F. Murray Abraham serenade their “Bella Notte,” you’re in heaven right there with the love-struck pooches.

Peg and Bull peer out of a cage door on a dog pound truck
Image courtesy of Disney+ and Walt Disney

In every major and minute production detail, tangible textures and patiently composed feels imbue the dainty enchantment of the movie, and they come from very unexpected sources. One would think the director of The LEGO Ninjago Movie would make something wildly feverish. At the same time, one might also expect the very adult mumblecore filmmaker responsible for Funny Ha Ha and Support the Girls to never involved himself in a Disney romance with dogs. Additionally, Yet, here are director Charlie Bean and lead writer Andrew Bujalski (with a boost from newcomer Kari Granlund) disarming us all with their own sprinkles of magic. The unexpected artistic transitions did not end there.

Legendary costume designer and four-time Academy Award winner Colleen Atwood graced this film with her period-era presence in a spot where the lead characters are never adorned with threaded finery. John Myhre, the two-time Oscar-winning production designer behind the stage numbers of Chicago, Nine, and Memoirs of a Geisha, created grand sweep within the sumptuous architectural antiquities of Savannah. 28 Days Later and Bumblebee cinematographer Enrique Chediak traded chasing zombies and robots with handheld cameras for the stable dollies following the darting dogs under legs and wheels on cobblestone streets. The live-action velocity of this Lady and the Tramp required marvelous training from lead animal coordinator Mark Forbes and a fair bit of stunts for San Andreas coordinator Bob Brown.

Even Tron: Legacy and Only the Brave electronic music veteran Joseph Trapenese finds himself channeling his The Greatest Showman side with pleasant orchestrations that evoke and retain much of the original Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee music from 64 years ago. Co-star Janelle Monae is a welcome new voice for Burke and Lee’s lyrics who does not try to overpower what already works as it is.

To have an effortless and bewitching finished film come from this kind of collection of diverse talent working out of their usual elements demonstrates a measured, inspired, and carefully minded level of production. Nothing is over-amplified and the result is more family-friendly than most of the action-ified reimaginings of the calendar year from the Mouse House. Once again, it is a concerted effort not to do too much or be too big. This confluence cannot be complimented enough. This movie alone is worth your first month of the new subscription streaming service.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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