Lady and the Tramp, Disney+ review: another day, another horrible CGI remake

Robbie Collin
A new CGI-ed Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson) gets close to the Tramp (Justin Theroux) - Disney

Dir: Charlie Bean. Cast: Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Sam Elliott, Ashley Jensen, Janelle Monáe, Benedict Wong (voices), Thomas Mann, Kiersey Clemons, Adrian Martinez, Yvette Nicole Brown. No cert (recommended for all ages), 111 mins

“Because it’s there” is a stirring rationale for, say, climbing Everest, but rather less inspiring as the grounds on which to remake a beloved animated classic. Yet as you watch Disney’s new live-action reworking of Lady and the Tramp, now streaming on Disney+, it’s impossible to shake the sense that the film exists primarily to tick itself off the studio’s own to-do list.

In the last five years, Disney has embarked on a rigorous regime of converting their showpiece hand-drawn animations into flesh-and-blood cinema – helped along, in some cases 99.9 per cent of the way, by photorealistic computer graphics. There isn’t a settled critical view on which of these projects, if any, have been worthwhile, but from delectable costumes to revolutionary visual effects, all so far have at least brought something new to the table.

In Lady and the Tramp’s case, there’s barely even a table to bring things to. Naturally, there’s a diligent restaging of the famous table scene: the one in the back alley behind the Italian restaurant, where Lady, a dainty Cocker Spaniel (voiced by Tessa Thompson), and Tramp, a tufty stray (Justin Theroux), share a plateful of spaghetti and meatballs to the tremulous strains of Bella Notte. But like every other frame of Charlie Bean’s film, it feels obligatory rather than inspired – less a film than a photoshoot.

As photoshoots go, it’s certainly a pretty one, and has been painstakingly mood-boarded in soothing millennial pastels and earth tones. The setting has shifted from a generic Disney midcentury storybook town to an improbably racially integrated version of early 20th century Savannah, Georgia: a potentially rich historical context that’s deployed for strictly cosmetic purposes only here, with paddle steamers and Dixieland bands occasionally cropping up in the bustling backdrops.

For both Lady and the Tramp, the place is home, even though their lives couldn’t be more different. Lady is doted on by her owners (Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons) in a genteel clapboard mansion, while Tramp spends his days dodging the local dog catcher (Adrian Martinez), and nights curled up in a rackety freight yard. Andrew Bujalski and Kari Granlund’s updated screenplay leaves the plot almost untouched – though it’s somehow become half an hour longer – so again, it’s a change in Lady’s domestic circumstances that pushes her out onto the streets and into the sauntering path of Disney’s original bit of ruff. 

On a purely vocal level, the romance works, with palpable warmth and playful chemistry in Thompson and Theroux’s voiceover work. Alas, the dogs themselves are much less persuasive, thanks to the ruinous decision to overlay the creatures’ (gorgeous) real faces in close-up with CGI masks that can be more easily manipulated for lip-synching and expressive purposes. The result looks like a bizarre form of canine kabuki, and just doesn’t ring true on screen: when you’re cutting between computer-generated dogs and the real things 15 times a scene, it’s hard for the former not to look glaringly bogus.

The same unfortunately applies to the key supporting pooches, enthusiastically voiced by Ashley Jensen (a Scottish Terrier) and Sam Elliott (a bloodhound, obviously): after a few seconds of adorable scampering or lolloping, the digital tinkering kicks in, and all trace of doggy life disappears from the frame faster than you can say bath. Most of the other creatures, including the two villainous Siamese cats (now a pair of Devon Rexes) are entirely CG creations – but unfortunately, when seen alongside the half-real, half-fake dogs, they’re just a different kind of unconvincing.

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You perhaps won’t be stunned to hear that the felines’ racially dubious theme song has been tactfully excised, though its replacement is so forgettable, you may well find yourself humming the old one regardless. Only one musical number really clicks: a gutsy cover version of She’s a Tramp, performed by Janelle Monáe’s stylishly bedraggled Pekingese.

Forgettability was presumably nobody’s aim here. But this new Lady and the Tramp does feel innocuous by design – it’s the kind of film that soaks up your time without enriching it, with little bark and even less bite.

Lady and the Tramp is streaming on Disney+ now