Probably the dullest to date of the live-action (or quasi-live) remakes of beloved Disney animated films, Charlie Bean’s Lady and the Tramp further explores the limitations of having real (or digitally realistic) critters stand in for the talking animals of yesteryear. Serving as the marquee offering of the corporation’s new Disney+ streaming service, it doesn’t bode well for that realm: Though hardly as disposable as the cheapo sequels Disney churned out during the heyday of VHS and DVD, it is nearly personality-free, suggesting that the studio will save any features with real charm or grandeur for the big screen before offering them to viewers at home.
Here, Kiersey Clemons and Thomas Mann play Darling and Jim Dear, a young married couple whose names still drip with the treacle of the 1955 cartoon. A blandly sweet pair, they celebrate one Christmas with a new puppy, a cocker spaniel named Lady, and quickly find she’s not content to sleep anywhere but between them in bed.
Despite that obstacle, Darling winds up pregnant, and Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson when the dog speaks to other animals) begins to feel the couple’s affections shifting. One day, she decides to share her concerns with the old-timer bloodhound in the neighbor’s yard — Trusty, a droopy drooler voiced by Sam Elliott. But it’s not Trusty on the other side of the fence; it’s a mutt known as Butch or Tramp (Justin Theroux), who has had experience with the fickleness of an owner’s love. In the first of the film’s many references to loyalty, he warns her that “when the baby moves in, the dog moves out.”
It’s a safe bet that the core Disney+ demographic will not recognize the name Andrew Bujalski. But parents who are cinephiles will scratch their heads to see him sharing screenplay credit here (alongside newcomer Kari Granlund): The writer-director of such character-driven comedies as Support the Girls has left no obvious mark here, and what few scraps of wit made it into the finished script are (with the exception of a surprising remark from a poodle) delivered very flatly. The movie shows nearly no sign of life until the half-hour mark, when two mean cats arrive in the Darling household, racing around and destroying furniture to the accompaniment of a jazzily threatening song.
They wreck the place, but Lady is blamed. A nasty house sitter (Yvette Nicole Brown) tries to muzzle the poor dog, but she escapes, and soon finds herself lost on the streets, where Tramp comes to the rescue. The two bond while getting into scrapes and running from the town’s weirdly zealous dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez); then, as the sun sets and Tramp expounds on the joys of an owner-free life, the dogs find themselves in the alley behind an Italian restaurant.
Casting Arturo Castro and F. Murray Abraham as the restaurateurs who prepare a spaghetti feast for the canine couple, the filmmakers clearly know they need to do justice to what is likely the only thing adults remember of the original film. This version of the famous spaghetti-kiss sequence is not charmless, but even fans of the new movie will likely agree it’s a far cry from our heroes’ first accidental, shy kiss in the animated version.
That’s largely due to the difficulty of giving flesh-and-blood-and-pixel animals the kind of personalities that Walt Disney’s veteran animators spent their careers creating. At their best, these dogs will skate by on kids’ weakness for cute animals; at their worst, they look like they should be hawking auto insurance in a TV commercial. Human actors’ voices often don’t even seem to be coming from the dogs’ mouths; and when they do, the actor’s personality and the canine’s face rarely fuse to create an engaging character. Theroux seems to work harder than anybody in the voice cast; but the real dog onscreen has none of the charm of 1955’s scrappy mutt. Lady appears to have gotten more attention from CG animators, who sometimes squish her brow or widen her eyes, but again, this is a poor substitute for a wholly animated creation.
The story gets a bit more involving as it goes, though some elements that might’ve been memorable (a musical number from a dog played by Janelle Monáe, for instance) fall flat. Little kids are the viewers least likely to object to the pic’s dramatic failings, of course, but they’re also the ones for whom the film’s climax will be most problematic: A pretty scary rat has been sneaking around Lady’s house for weeks, and winds up entering the baby’s bedroom through an open window — perching on her crib, ready to dive in and chew on an infant if some heroic mutt doesn’t get to her first. Lacking the powers of speech granted to the film’s dogs, the rat is the most believable animal in the movie. That’s a bad thing, even for those of us old enough to know it’ll never touch a hair on that baby’s head.
Production company: Taylor Made
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Kiersey Clemons, Thomas Mann, Adrian Martinez, Yvette Nicole Brown, Sam Elliott, Ashley Jensen, Janelle Monae, Benedict Wong, Arturo Castro, F. Murray Abraham
Director: Charlie Bean
Screenwriters, Andrew Bujalski, Kari Granlund
Producer: Brigham Taylor
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: John Myhre
Costume designers: Colleen Atwood, Timothy A. Wonsik
Editor: Melissa Bretherton
Composer: Joseph Trapanese
Casting director: Richard Hicks
PG, 102 minutes