Directed By Charlie Bean
Starring – Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Sam Elliott
The Plot – A timeless retelling of the 1955 animated classic, that features a pampered house dog (Thompson) and a tough but lovable stray (Theroux) embarking on an unexpected adventure and, despite their differences, grow closer and come to understand the value of home.
Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and action/peril
– Distinguishable score. What I love so thoroughly about the musical compositions done here by composer Joseph Trapanese is there’s a real sense of geographical identity maintained by the flavors and instruments that he uses to accentuate our introduction into this world. The trumpets and horns seem to elaborate of a Louisiana feel, complete with big band swing numbers to remove doubt in the form of accents by the actors, which certainly aren’t present. Aside from this, Trapanese has fine audible timing as a composer to know just when to switch up his tempo’s from warm and light-hearted to suspenseful and ominously resonant, and it keeps so much of his work from remaining so very one-note, similar to how many of Disney’s animated property scores rubbed together in constant repetition.
– Intricate production value. For a Disney streaming offering, this section is highly exceptional for the budget that they’re given to work with. The dated wardrobe of 1909 is not only wonderful at immersing us into the thread designs of the established day, but their consistency between three-piece suits and free-flowing gowns are seen as far as the eyes can stretch, using every possible angle of framing to give subtle reminder of this place that feels far from our own. In addition to this, the set design is absolutely off the chain, using no shortage of shelving to show off some of the more sturdy inventions of yesterday. This gives the sets an almost three-dimensional rendering, complete with vibrancy in coloring that keep them from ever fading in the background.
– Surprising special effects. While not nearly as effective or believable as I would eventually prefer them to be, the subtle influence of canine movements in the film is a welcome step of positivity moving forward that will hopefully help the ball swing more in Disney’s live action favor. It helps that live action dogs are used for the integrity of the scenes, leaving the post-production to focus more on just the mouth movements and emotional resonance on the faces of these furry friends. On the latter, it’s slightly better than “The Lion King”, but still nowhere near as expressive as an animated movie made nearly seventy years prior to it. On the former, the mouth movements are nearly perfect with what’s being heard in dialogue deposits, and flow naturally once you get over the initial first ten minutes, where seeing dogs talk in live action form feels strange in the real world feel that Disney seems aiming towards. It proves that subtly rings truest in bringing two sides of artistic direction together, and bringing forth the realist depiction of animated animals from Disney to date.
– Differences. The overall structure of the story still remains very similar to the original “Lady and the Tramp”, but there are more than a few measurable changes to the direction of the story, which for the most part ground the story accordingly towards more of a dramatic enveloping. This is seen more than anywhere else during the late second act, where Lady and Tramp begin their cross-town descent through a night of silly hijinks, and end sampling some deliciously-appealing spaghetti and meatballs. It cuts through too much of the downtime, which stretches the original movie even for its 72 minute run time, and instead invests more time within the dynamic of the two dogs, making their eventual friendship all the more valuable because of the backstories receiving further emphasis. There are unfortunate sacrifices to the edit button, which I will get to later, but if nothing else I appreciate Disney instilling anything different from the live action shot-for-shot remakes that have made them all comfortably uncomfortable.
– Compelling vantage points. Part of what I’ve always loved about the Lady and the Tramp lore is its contrast in placing two characters from opposite sides of the track, and fleshing them out in a way that allows each of them to learn about the other in ways that help each of them grow as canines. This educative side of the ages old nature versus nurture debate not only creates some uncomfortable dynamics for Lady and the Tramp alike, but also supplants an air of social commentary poignancy that teaches us the importance of those less fortunate. Lady only survives during her time on the street because of Tramp’s intellect and awareness when dealing with danger and abusive authority, and Tramp’s family prejudice is only defeated when he opens himself up to the love that being adoptable can pertain. It teaches us against being close-minded, and reminds us that only possibilities come from opportunity.
– Human characters. I understand that this is a story first and foremost about the canine protagonists, but the human element of the film is so lukewarmly underdeveloped that they often come across as the very same cartoon characters that this film was trying so hard to get away from. Some of it’s on the performances, which I will get to later, but for the most part it’s the impossible personalities that are anything but honest in a real world rendering. I point to the cherished restaurant scene, where a snobby business owner yells at his staff to hurry along to the packed house waiting, but takes more than enough ample time bringing plates of food to dogs outside, as well as serenading them with a violin and ukulele. In addition to this, the owners might as well be pieces of paper. They have no personalities or influence on the dynamic of the film, nor do they make enough of an impression to warrant how much screen time the movie gives them. This is also prominent with the film’s antagonist; a dog catcher played by Adrian Martinez, who is a one-note Disney villain who might as well be spitting fire from his mouth. If you’re going to establish a real world conscience, make the characters live and breathe inside such a decision. Otherwise, these are cartoon humans living in a live action real world, and it just doesn’t blend well together for compelling characterization.
– Musical minimalization. This is where the edit button really starts to get over-zealous, as so many of the cherished tracks and musical numbers that familiarize people with a healthy dose of nostalgia is, for the majority, gone here. I can think of at least three musical numbers that are nowhere to be found, and the negative condentation that this has on the film is it makes it all the more difficult to indulge in the supposed depth of their personalities. The lyrics of the songs better help to flesh out the psychology of these furry characters and what they’re feeling. Without it, we not only lose the magic of the moments in translation, but the movie’s 96 minute runtime does eventually start to hold us prisoner because of how little material there is to fill it.
– Culturally and historically insensitive. I hate playing this card during a kids movie, but there are still more than enough heavy influences that creep up into the frame of this 2019 installment. For one, the depiction of a mixed race couple as Lady’s owners is one that I commend the company for in establishing some semblance of progressive ideals to the story’s merit, but in setting your film in 1909, it does do a disservice in educating youths on the influence that racism played in deep south America. Readers probably won’t agree with me, but things like these don’t sit well with me when you have the responsibility of educating during a time piece film. Whether it’s a kids movie or not, it ignores what was prominently a factor in the world’s foreground. This is why I would prefer that the movie be set in current day, as opposed to 1909, but then we’d lose so much of the production value, so damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There are other examples with Asian and Spanish characters, but those would be getting into spoiler territories, so I will save that for another day.
– Forgettable performances. This especially pains me because I’m a huge Tessa Thompson fan, but the limitations of the script and direction from Bean keep this high-brow talented cast from ever making the roles their own. On Tessa, she has enough energy donated to the role, but not enough emphasis on the dramatic side that engulfs her character whole during the second half. Theroux is virtually insignificant, meaning anyone could play this role and get at least the same charm and charisma that he minimally returns us on throughout the film. As for human characters, it was nice to see Thomas Mann, Kiersey Clemmons, and Yvette Nicole Brown do their thing, but all of them act like they were given these single word phrases to fill in the gaps of their characters, with not an ounce of intelligence between them. The cast was the last thing that I expected to be the problem here, but thanks to flat direction and meaningless choices made with the characters, they can’t even measure up to the physical performances of their furry on-screen co-stars.
– Uneven halves. The first half is dull and repetitive, offering no shred of intrigue to draw us into this story beyond the top-notch production design. It slugs along feeling the weight of its minutes because it’s approaching the story from far too many angles, when in reality all we want is two cohesively parallel narratives running simultaneously until these two dogs become one. There’s no relief in the second half either, as the lack of developed drama eventually catches up to the film’s final dramatic conflict (If you can call it that), where a rat who we’ve never heard from or mentioned once throughout this film is suddenly a threat to a pivotal character. Because of its spontaneous appearance, this feels every bit as tacked-on as it does inconsequential to what it brings forth. Was this rat going to poison this person, or bite it? What was the intention here? Ultimately, it tries to be too dramatic when it never shifts the gears in motion towards heading that way, and outlines no shortage of faults throughout this screenplay that Disney knew better than to show in a theater.
My Grade: 5/10 or D