The peculiar new "Lady and the Tramp" is fine with me, as long as it succeeds in getting younger Disney Plus subscribers to check out the 1955 original sometime, especially now that it has been deemed potentially offensive. The streaming behemoth has slapped a cautionary label on that earlier film, along with several other Disney movies which "may contain outdated cultural depictions."
For the record: Those five words apply to the overwhelming majority of films (and songs, and advertising, and everything we buy and sell in this country) ever made in this country. That includes half the movies opening in theaters this week.
That's history for you: inconvenient, triggering, provoking us into new, uneasy relationships with things we grew up loving, or grew into loving. And may love still, even if it feels wrong.
The new "Lady and the Tramp" shouldn't work at all, and often it doesn't. It has no reason for existing outside business reasons. Disney's stockholders depend, in part, on Disney's relentless intellectual property recycling program, and on the company dragging as many of its earlier hits into new iterations as is annually possible.
Parts of director Charlie Bean's new version are charming in spite of, well, almost everything. Working from a screenplay by Andrew Bujalski and Kari Granlund, Bean creates his own serenely anachronistic version of post-racial early 20th century America, one shot partly on location in Savannah, Ga.
The characterizations and casting, vocal or otherwise, leave a lot of the original's white bread off the table. Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons) are now an interracial couple. Lady, voiced by Tessa Thompson, lives next door to Jock, the Scottie dog, now a female (voice by Ashley Jensen). Adrian Martinezplays the expanded if tiresome role of the determined dog catcher, perpetually on the hunt for the nimble stray of the title, voiced by Justin Theroux.
Is it any fun to watch "real" dogs, augmented by computer-generated movement, share a real plate of spaghetti while F. Murray Abraham sings "Bella Notte"? This is where your feelings about the original scene necessarily come into play. In the '55 original, it's one of the great first-date sequences in cinema history. And if you're going to do this Disney karaoke routine, forcing an animated entity into a pristine, clean-edged, dead-eyed variation for a new generation, well, the results haven't killed the charm altogether.
The worst of this new "Lady and the Tramp" comes when the script piles on the strenuous comic action, followed by ill-advised dark shadows. In tone and atmosphere the dog pound scenes resemble "The Silence of the Lambs" more than the '55 "Lady and the Tramp," though Disney's trailer for the CinemaScope original laid on the pathos with a trowel. Ethnic stereotypes abound in the original, leaning into Disney's Americana-without-the-immigrants ideal. The voiceover references to the Siamese cats ("those mischievous Orientals") are exceeded only by the description of dog-pound Pedro as a Chihuahua "whose visa and luck ran out at the same time."
The remake avoids all that, while adding 27 extra minutes to the running time. This leads to a protracted climax with Butch saving Darling and Jim Dear's infant daughter from a realistic-looking and sinister rat. Huh? What? What is this, "Willard"? Thanks for playing straight into the purists' intractable argument: Never change or update a thing.
The reason I love the '55 "Lady and the Tramp" owes a lot to the songs co-written by Peggy Lee (who also, memorably, voiced Peg, the dog) and Sonny Burke. "The Siamese Cat Song" has been excised in the remake, which is for the better. On the other hand, the replacement tune, "What a Shame" by Nate "Rocket" Wonder and Roman GianArthur, isn't much, and the feline-destruction chaos it accompanies is a drag.