Disney has been on an absolute rampage this year with remakes of their earlier animation studio works. Audiences have been bombarded with four remakes in total – five if you include the Maleficent sequel – and for this critic at least it has been causing a growing sense of cynicism. Tim Burton’s Dumbo was a colossal misfire, The Lion King felt like the most redundant remake since Gun Van Sant directed a shot-for-shot replica of Psycho, and Maleficent was a commercial under-performer. Only Aladdin seemed to demonstrate any originality or screen appeal, and even that was moderated by some key flaws in writing and casting.
It is something of a surprise, then, to find that the most effective remake of the year was the one relegated to the Internet. Lady and the Tramp debuted straight to the company’s new streaming service Disney+, skipping any form of theatrical release. It seems a small shame, since it has a charm and an integrity that was lacking from most of its higher profile stablemates. There is a sense that Disney have left money on the table by denying it a proper release.
There is an authentic feeling of character that lifts the film above other recent efforts. It lacks any large-scale action sequences, and this allows the story to be more intimate and its time spent more on the characters than the visuals. It remains a nicely attractive work, of course, but there is room for a comparatively subtlety that is greatly to the film’s benefit. Director Charlie Bean does a good job of making it feel rather laid-back and simple. That is a refreshing change from the sturm und drang of the likes of Aladdin and The Lion King.
Some changes have been made from the original, but they all feel like relatively smart choices. Some characters have had their genders changed, for example, or their ethnicity. There is a general push at the audience to adopt pets rather than buy them, which seems a welcome development. The fairly offensive “Siamese Cat Song” that has plagued the 1955 original is gone, replaced by the much more effective “What a Shame” (co-written by Nate “Rocket” Wonder, Roman GianArthur, and Janelle Monáe). The original film’s signature moments remain, but the narrative in between has been shifted and evolved a little.
The performances are rather wonderful. Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux do a pleasant job of playing the titular dogs. The supporting cast – including Sam Elliott, Ashley Jenson, Benedict Wong, and Janelle Monáe – all do a good job, and are well matched to their characters. On the live-action side, Kiersey Clemens and Thomas Mann are deeply likeable as Jim and Darling Dear, and F. Murray Abraham makes a wonderful cameo as the restauranteur who serenades Lady and Tramp during the film’s most iconic moments.
It is worth noting that this does feel a low-key work; it is not as action-packed or intense as its theatrical companions. That works to its benefit, however, and it feels a more honest and heartfelt film. It is not a classic, and by no means does it approach the quality of the original animation, but as an enjoyable family film it is something of a minor delight. If Disney is to continue remaking its famous animations, this seems a better direction to take than most of what’s been made so far.