Lady and the Tramp review – Disney’s lovestruck dogs come to half-life

Disney’s glossy live-action update of Lady and the Tramp, like the majority of the studio’s other IRL remakes, exists purely because it has to rather than because it should do, a product born not from a creative brainwave but from a commercial inevitability. The hugely profitable, and mostly tiresome, trend of dusting off handcrafted classics and rehauling them for a new audience has sped up this year with Aladdin, The Lion King, Dumbo and a Maleficent sequel all released theatrically, the underwhelming box office of the latter two hinting at growing audience fatigue. The decision to premiere Lady and the Tramp digitally, morphing it into a TV movie, launching Disney’s splashy new content platform Disney+, is therefore a wise one and taken as such, it’s adequate if wholly unnecessary entertainment, ending up somewhere between a lady and a tramp.

The story, still simple and still effective, tells of romance across class borders between two dogs: Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson), who lives a comfortable life as the surrogate child of a human couple (Kiersey Clemons and Thomas Mann), and Tramp (voiced by Justin Theroux), a street-dwelling loner whose day-to-day depends on whatever scraps of food he can find. Lady’s domestic bliss is sent into a tailspin when an actual human baby arrives and through a frantic set of circumstances, she finds herself on the street, roughing it with her unlikely new friend.

There’s some low-stakes enjoyment to be had here, benefited largely from the film’s Disney+ drop. It’s certainly slick and boasts higher production values than the average streaming premiere but it’s a comparatively modest Disney remake that would have felt dwarfed, in a number of ways, on the big screen. The 1955 original was a breezy 76 minutes and in updating, The Lego Ninjago Movie director Charlie Bean has added almost half an hour, a considerable amount of padding and one that didn’t do Kenneth Branagh’s 38-minute-longer take on Cinderella any favours. It’s a smoother expansion here, the film’s laid-back pace pairing nicely with the Savannah setting and a jazzy soundtrack, even if the extended plot doesn’t add a whole lot more of notable worth (although thankfully the uneasy orientalism of the Siamese Cat Song has been replaced with something far less problematic).

The central dogs are impressively trained and cute to watch but there’s a lingering problem that also affected this summer’s big-budget remake of The Lion King. In trying to make talking animals look as real as they can, there’s an emotional depth missing from their expressions when they’re speaking. Thompson and Theroux, along with fellow voice actors Janelle Monáe, Sam Elliott and Ashley Jensen try hard, but there’s something not quite, ahem, animated enough about their on-screen incarnations. It removes us from the more emotional moments and it’s an issue the studio will need to figure out before The Little Mermaid, given that a crab has at least two musical numbers. The horror.

There’s also a frustrating waste of Clemons, who was so incredibly charming in last year’s little-seen music indie Hearts Beat Loud, stuck here with little to do, or sing, as the human lady of the house. But perhaps the strangest thing about the film is that it was co-written by the “godfather of mumblecore”, Andrew Bujalski, an indie auteur whose acclaimed lo-fi films often feel improvised in nature, given his rejection of so many traditional scripting standards. His influence is sadly invisible here and any hope that the film might have followed in the footsteps of 2016’s exceptional Pete’s Dragon, a remake from similarly mismatched arthouse staple David Lowery, is left out on the street. The script, like so much of the film, is serviceable at best, never once explaining to us why Bujalski would want to get involved other than for financial reasons, which one wouldn’t begrudge him given the scale of his output to date.

Lady and the Tramp works well enough on its own simple terms as watchable, competently made home viewing. If it’s a sign of what’s to come on Disney+ though, a 103-minute tease to get families to fork out for yet another streaming platform, then those involved might need to try a bit harder.