The latest live-action Disney adaptation fails to answer the same existential question as the rest: Why does this need to exist?
I’ve so far successfully managed to avoid all of Disney’s attempts to use the crowbar of nostalgia to pry open my wallet. Their ever-increasing raft of cartoon adaptations mostly floats on by my viewing choices. This week, we’re diving into Disney+ offerings to see if the service is worth your time. As one of the more prominent originals is the new Lady and the Tramp, I figured I’d check this meatball out.
Lady and the Tramp 
Lady (Tessa Thompson) is a cocker spaniel living in a posh home, doted upon by her owners Jim and Darling Dear. When Darling becomes pregnant, Lady’s place in the household is suddenly uncertain. Despite reassurance from her friends, Trusty the bloodhound (Sam Elliott) and Jock the terrier (Ashley Jensen), she is further unnerved when a stray mutt, the Tramp (Justin Theroux) drops by and tells her that humans naturally ditch their pets when a baby appears. Lady is wary of Tramp, but eventually becomes captivated by his carefree lifestyle as her own home-life deteriorates.
Through the Doggy Door.
The animation for CG Lady and the other canines is mostly seamless. Some of the exaggeration around the eyes is a bit silly, like a dog food commercial from the 90’s. Some of it is inspired, really allowing the dogs to feel expressive yet natural. There are some obvious clunkers – the two cats who torment Lady (no longer Siamese to avoid controversy) look horrible, and the rat that menaces Lady’s home is mostly grey and featureless. On the whole, though, it works.
The More That Changes…
The changes go beyond a few gender swaps and the loss of Siamese cats. The musical numbers are mostly reworked…to poor effect. The cats’ new song is a waste of time, which doesn’t help how ugly the cats look and how fake their interactions with the physical sets are. The rest of the songs are entirely forgettable, except “He’s a Tramp” and “Belle Notte” which were fantastic in the original anyway.
A few scenes do get reworked to good effect – instead of Tramp saving lady from stray dogs physically, he suggests she play rabid to scare them away, and she delightfully lays it on thick. Tessa Thompson seems to really be having fun as Lady, who is much more assured and clever than the doggy damsel in the original.
…The More That Stays the Same.
The main beats of the plot are largely unchanged. A few things are elided, but nothing that matters. If you’ve seen the original, you’re not getting much new here. And as we discussed, most of the new stuff is not worth a whole lot.
The most obvious change is that Lady and the Tramp is much more multicultural than the original. Jim and Darling are an interracial couple. They have an Asian American doctor (Ken Jeong in a snarky cameo). The city is multicultural to the extreme, with every cuisine imaginable and shops being owned and run by folks of nearly every ethnicity. One one hand, its a laudable reaction to the problematic stereotypes in the 1955 version. But it feels like woke window-dressing as it is never engaged.
The original was nominally set in the early 1900’s in Walt’s hometown in Missouri. The update, from some googling, seems to have moved stakes to New Orleans (It was filmed in Atlanta, Georgia.) New Orleans was a thriving port and melting pot, so that seems like a smart move…but New Orleans was also a southern metropolitan in a post-reconstruction South.
That means Jim Crow. That means miscegenation laws forbidding mixed marriages (one document I found points to New Orleans having rolled back their interracial marriage statutes in the late 1800’s, but others reference the prevalence of Jim Crow having put it back on the books by 1894. They stayed there till the 1970’s.) Most states had yet to abolish that blight of a law, so “unnamed American city in 1910” doesn’t buy the film much cover.
There’s no reckoning with that fraught history. If you watch 2019’s Lady and the Tramp without any history under your belt, you’d think that the early 1900’s in the US was an all-inclusive utopia. Yeah, despite a major riot leading to the massacre of African Americans in New Orleans in 1900 (caused by an altercation between a white police office and a black citizen. So much for progress.)
Disney wants to paper over problematic parts of the original by inviting a wider diversity to the story. It avoids any discussion of how that is largely an aspirational fiction for the period the film is addressing. It feels just as tin-eared as having an Italian stereotype sing over a plate of spaghetti ever did.
For the Dogs?
Lady and the Tramp doesn’t need to exist. It adds very little to the property. The omissions, elisions, and retconning of American history lead to a sanitized story that feels focus-group manufactured. At least the original could inspire a conversation about why the Siamese cats were problematic. This one doesn’t inspire any conversation, except perhaps a debate about whether you’d rather switch to the original after ten minutes in the pound with this chewed-over ham bone.