Disney, in its quest to do live-action remakes of its entire animated library, has been incredibly successful in the strategy of not giving people something new as much as what’s familiar with a fresh coat of paint. There have been a couple daring attempts like Pete’s Dragon (which was a remake of a live-action/animated hybrid) and the surprisingly charming Cinderella, but they’ve now settled into a rut of Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Dumbo where they try to paper over the controversial elements from previous iterations while really not adding much to the new version other than an incentive to get you to shell out money for something you probably already own. The new version of Lady and the Tramp doesn’t really buck this trend, but the remake is slightly more palatable since it comes with a Disney+ subscription you probably got for Star Wars and Marvel and the vast Disney library. The new Lady and the Tramp is largely the same as the animated version with a few minor tweaks, moments that will make you sad about dogs, and serves its purpose as a way to keep kids entertained when they don’t want to watch Frozen or Finding Nemo for the 1,000th time.
Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson) is a happy cocker spaniel living with Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons) while stray dog the Tramp (voiced by Justin Theroux) uses his wits to survive on the streets of an early 20th century New Orleans. The two have a meet-cute where Tramp cautions Lady that when Jim Dear and Darling’s new baby arrives, they’re probably going to throw her out. When the cruel Aunt Sarah (Yvette Nicole Brown) tries to put a muzzle on Lady after Lady is framed by Aunt Sarah’s cats (now without the racism!) for damaging the house, Lady runs away and loses her collar. She meets up with Tramp again and the two dogs start to fall for each other as they make their way across the city, taking in the sights, getting free spaghetti and meatballs, and avoiding a monomaniacal dogcatcher.
If you’ve seen the original 1955 animated movie, the new Lady and the Tramp won’t hold many surprises. Like most of the live-action Disney movies, the new Lady and the Tramp is a way for parents to share a classic with their children while technically giving them something new. It’s basically the latest iteration of the Disney Vault except now there’s the novelty of a live-action twist that no one really asked for but allows Disney to dodge the more controversial aspects of past work without really engaging with it. So, for example, the racist Siamese cats from the original are gone, and no one has to have a hard conversation about race and entertainment. Look! New songs from Janelle Monae!
And yet the platform provides an added benefit to Lady and the Tramp, which is that it’s “free” in the sense that it’s packaged into the $6.99/month Disney+ service. Unlike the new Aladdin or The Lion King where you’re being asked to pay $15-20 per ticket for an inferior version of a movie you already love, Lady and the Tramp is there on Disney+ on day one, so what does it cost you? It’s not a “killer app” like The Mandalorian where every Star Wars fan needs to subscribe for the new Star Wars thing, but it’s a piece of disposable children’s programming, which honestly has its place if you’re trying to entertain a child and don’t want to pay the expense of taking them out to the movies.
That being said, between the original and the remake, I’d still give the original the edge because kids probably won’t pick up on the controversial aspects (and you could also, you know, talk to your child and explain it to them), but also there’s something uncomfortable about watching sad things happen to live-action dogs. When Tramp recounts his tragic backstory, it really kicked me in the gut, and while animated movies can also provide that experience (see: Pixar), Lady and the Tramp will hit your animal-loving triggers faster because the dogs are “real” even though the animation on them, especially when they’re talking, is relatively crude when compared to the big budget wizardry of The Lion King or The Jungle Book. If you don’t like being sad about dogs, you may want to avoid Lady and the Tramp, or just hit fast-forward during these scenes.
Lady and the Tramp is the first of many movies that will debut on Disney+, and it remains to be seen how the quality will vary across titles. The film clearly has a smaller budget and societal footprint than movies like Aladdin and The Lion King, but it’s not a bad movie as much as it’s an easily forgettable one that probably would have slowed the momentum of the live-action Disney remake train had it been released in theaters. “Not Good Enough for Theaters” isn’t probably what Disney intended for Disney+ movies, and I’m curious to see other original titles the service offers. But on its own merits, Lady and the Tramp is a pretty close cousin to the rest of the live-action Disney remakes: safe, inoffensive, and forgettable.