Lady and the Tramp (2019)

The scariest moment in a 2019 film comes six minutes into Lady and the Tramp, when my world got shattered and any god I believed in turned out to be myth and legend. At this moment, the last moment I could call myself a sane person, a dog started talking. Maybe it’s something about the actual dogs in tandem with very accurate CG human-style mouths, maybe it’s the sound design that places all the voices in the same omniscient space so the dogs feel less like real players in a physical space and more like all-knowing deities that are only placated from world domination by surveying the human world and smiling at their follies, but either way, I don’t like it. It’s a close-up too, a painful shot of Lady (Tessa Thompson) trying to intimidate a rat on her front porch where you can see every strand of fur move in a horrifically human way. I made it through the Cats trailer but this broke me.

The newest in a line of remakes of classic Disney animated films, Lady and the Tramp seemed like a weird movie to remake, as the 1955 original never had much love or nostalgia attached to it. It’s a slower, less focused movie, the sort of movie that combats the idea that these animated films should be more intelligent and adult. Not to say that criticism is wrong, but maybe it’s directed at the wrong place, because Lady and the Tramp is a bit of a boring, middling failure. In that way, I offer my commendations to the 2019 remake, as it captures the essence of the original spectacularly, even expanding upon it.

If remakes like Aladdin or even Beauty and the Beast have some momentum due to the community theater vibe that buoys the film out of sheer enthusiasm, Lady and the Tramp feels like a performance by high schoolers who weren’t good enough to be on Broadway so they cynically chase any performance they can find just to feel a semblance of the rush they felt when they thought they could be famous. Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons are the human leads here, as the young couple that own Lady, but both actors feel uncomfortable and out of place in these more dignified characters. Mann especially, who I’ve quite liked in films like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Stanford Prison Experiment, is so poor at offering the Disney dad sense of authority that nothing he says or does feels right. Clemons is slightly better off because her one emotion is “nice”. The same cannot be said for Yvette Nicole Brown as Clemons’ atrociously bitter aunt, and Adrian Martinez as a dog catcher whose life mission is to go after stray dogs. These two characters are horrifically written, but the performances lean into cartoonish black-hearted evil so they feel lifted from a completely different sort of film. This movie clearly has aspirations of a high-class romance film just about animals. Imagine if The Notebook had Paul Blart thrown into the middle of it, and you’d be close to how this film is structured.

When not even Justin Theroux or Sam Elliot (playing the Tramp and a wise neighborly dog, respectively) can bring a life to the film, it should show how dour, misguided, and empty this film is. It’s 30 minutes longer than the original, and feels like it goes on for days. I have nothing nice to say about this movie, and I found something to praise in Playing with Fire. It depresses me as there’s nothing about it that makes any sense. Who wanted this? Who is going to enjoy this? Why is Janelle Monáe a singing dog, and why is the singing animation more terrifying than the talking animation? Why? For god’s sake why?


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