A live-action remake that feels like it was made with the same low expectations and general sense of indifference with which most Disney+ subscribers will decide to watch it, Charlie Bean’s new “Lady and the Tramp” is the perfect movie to kick off the next phase of the streaming wars: It’s new but familiar, safe but unsound, and somehow well-furnished but also cheap-looking. Most of all, it clearly only exists because an entertainment conglomerate felt compelled to build a platform before it had enough material to support it — because the tail is wagging the dog.
The good news is that “The Lion King,” “The Jungle Book,” and the rest of Disney’s technology-driven remakes have conditioned us to be grateful for small favors, and most viewers will probably salivate at the mere sight of real animals. And while the decision to digitally move the dogs’ snouts when they speak English to each other is almost off-putting enough to negate the effect altogether, fur-and-blood puppies aren’t the only pleasantly old-fashioned thing about this “Lady and the Tramp.”
Adhering closely to both the tone and treacle of the 1955 original in the way that only a Christmas movie could, Bean’s version begins in much the same way as the previous one. It’s December 24, 1909, and Jim Dear and his darling wife Darling — yes, those are still their names — are a well-to-do couple with nothing but hope on the horizon. This time, however, they live in Savannah rather than the Midwest, they’re made out of flesh rather than ink, and they’re a mixed-race couple (en-dearingly played by Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons) rather than the two whitest people on Earth; that this last detail goes entirely unmentioned in turn-of-the-century Georgia feels about as realistic as a talking dog, but it makes for great casting and some nice added texture. Although Jim and Darling are eager to have a baby — and neither of them are developed enough to have jobs — he just can’t help but give her a posh cocker spaniel for Christmas.
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Lady (voiced with admirable enthusiasm by Tessa Thompson) quickly becomes a part of the family, even cuddling between Jim and Darling in bed every night. But she must be a sound sleeper, because the happy couple soon manage to conceive a child, and Lady finds herself facing an attention deficit disorder of the worst kind. She’s a lucky dog to have a home, but it hurts not to feel like she actually has a place in it, and the rest of the neighborhood pups — a pack that includes “Catastrophe” star Ashley Jensen as a Scottish Terrier and Sam Elliott (in the role he was born to play) as a bloodhound named Trusty — are too domesticated to offer her any help. No, what Lady needs is a world-weary mutt like Tramp (a subdued Justin Theroux) who will set her straight by dropping truth bombs like: “People are not loyal.”
The mismatched pair have all the natural chemistry of dry kibble and that wet nastiness that people serve their dogs along with it, but it’s enough to propel the plot forward as the two explore the stray lifestyle together and try to stay a step ahead of an evil dogcatcher (ubiquitous New York character actor Adrian Martinez, who always delivers some good face). The story is paced at the speed of an afternoon nap, the city is shot with the flatness of a bad set, and the script — co-written by Kari Granlund and indie luminary Andrew Bujalski (“Support the Girls”) — is far blander than its pedigree would ever suggest. All that really leaves you with are some occasional surprises (such as the unexpected actor who serves the dogs their famous lip-smacking dinner) and a handful of songs that call attention to the dreadful special effects.
The songs that Peggy Lee wrote for the original “Lady and the Tramp” doesn’t rate highly when compared to either her or Disney’s usual output, and the only memorable number — ”The Siamese Cat Song” — was never going to fly in the 21st century. Bean and company may have been wiser to ditch the musical element altogether, and simply lace the film with the lovely Christmas tunes that Clemons sings from time to time, as the compromise on which they’ve landed feels like a movie that’s stuck between modes. The tunes are few and far between, but in one way or another they hit all of the film’s lowest notes. The “Siamese” bit has been replaced by a limp ditty sung by a pair of destructive and crudely rendered CGI house cats, who make for a garish contrast to the real animal cast members (the same problem affects two adorable — and extremely fake — grifter puppies who pop up to mug people with their cuteness).
Later, the ever-reliable Janelle Monáe powers through a rendition of “He’s a Tramp,” but the scene is considerably better if you watch it with your eyes closed, because grafting a digital face onto a pint-sized Pekingese is enough to make the whole dog look fake.
That effect holds true across the entire movie, as our carbon-based hero couple transform into computer-generated chimeras every time they open their mouths. “Lady and the Tramp” might take a different route than “The Lion King,” but it winds up in the same depths of the uncanny valley. Other things that get lost down there include a sweet moral about the power of home (and the value of sharing it), a healthy dose of holiday spirit, and an invigorating sense that Disney only has so many classic movies left to remake. But the dogs are cute when they keep their jaws closed, the Darlings exude a picture-perfect glow that fills every room of their house with warmth, and — as previously stated — Sam Elliott voices a bloodhound named Trusty. It’s hard not to feel like this could all be so much worse. Lucky for us, the streaming wars are just getting started.
“Lady and the Tramp” will be available to stream on Disney+ on Tuesday, November 12.