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The live-action Lady and the Tramp feels like a theme-park version of real life

All pretty set design and no substance

tramp and lady on a porch Disney Plus

In May, five months before Disney Plus’ new live-action feature Lady and the Tramp was released, Disney announced that Janelle Monáe would write new music for the remake. More specifically, the studio planned to ditch the uncomfortably racist “Siamese Cat Song” from the 1955 animated original movie, and replace it with something less offensive. The original song featured affected accents and purposefully choppy English, sung by two animated Siamese cats with big buck teeth, a common racist caricature used in depictions of Asians during the 1940s and ’50s.

The replacement song is just about mischievous cats in general. It’s a kinda jazzy tune called “What a Shame,” performed by funk duo Deep Cotton, which plays when two tabby cats slink around and destroy a home like the Siamese cats in the original. The song is different, but the scene is more or less the same. Disney is trying to sanitize the racist undertones of the old scene, but still needs to include it, since the studio apparently can’t make a “new” Lady and the Tramp without following the old one note for note.

So to fix the problems of the past, Disney made Lady and the Tramp’s human couple, Jim Dear and Darling, into an interracial pair (played by Kiersey Clemons and Thomas Mann), tossed in some characters of color (Yvette Nicole Brown as the couple’s Aunt Sarah, for instance), and set the whole movie in a fictitious, idealized version of the past.

The remake’s plot is more or less the same. A pampered house-dog named Lady meets a charismatic stray named Tramp. Feeling jaded and neglected after her owners have a baby, she’s wooed by his adventurous attitude. They romantically eat spaghetti and fall hard for each other until a dogcatcher snags Lady. She returns home, manages to convince her humans that Tramp is a good boy, and they’re soon reunited. There are changes, but they’re mostly surface-level.

The biggest change is the tone. 2019’s Lady and the Tramp is full of saccharine nostalgia that dunks 1909 America in a candy-coated veneer of wokeness. The entire movie feels like it was made inside a Disney theme park, from the perfectly pristine sets to the slightly hyperbolic acting. This sense of artificiality extends deeper than just the surface aesthetics, as the movie swaps away turn-of-the-century racial politics for more family-friendly sources of tension.

jim dear and darling show lulu the baby to lady Disney Plus

The original Lady and the Tramp also takes place in 1909, with a setting inspired by Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri, which also inspired the design of Main Street, USA in most Disney parks. Neither version of the movie specifies what state it’s set in, but considering a prolonged scene in 2019’s version takes place on a riverboat, it presumably doesn’t take place in, say, Nebraska.

Herein lies the uncomfortable juxtaposition: Missouri didn’t legalize interracial marriage till 1967. The average small Missouri town in 1909 was not going to take kindly to an interracial couple in a big house. It’s a nice thought, a fantasy getaway to a time and place that never actually existed — wouldn’t it be nice to have the aesthetic of turn-of-century America without the racism?

But Lady and the Tramp also asks the audience to suspend its disbelief enough to accept talking dogs. Why not pretend away racism as well? 2019’s Lady and the Tramp fits right in with Disney’s sanitized version of the past, where big, difficult-to-tackle issues like racism don’t exist, but issues like misogyny and classism can be packaged into safe, family-friendly conflicts. Our plucky heroines can still encounter boorish men, à la in the live-action Beauty and the Beast, and our struggling heroes can still be called street rats, à la the live-action Aladdin. But because there isn’t a smooth way to present institutional racism and the deep-seated racial tensions of Missouri in 1909, in this world it simply doesn’t exist.

In fact, there’s a scene in Lady and the Tramp where Aunt Sarah makes a comment about how Jim Dear doesn’t have a real job, because he’s a musician. Her judgment of his profession is never mentioned again, so it’s just a strange moment where a black woman is set up as an antagonist to a white man, with no racial resonance intended. Prejudice still exists in this Disney-fied version of the past, but it’s not racist, it’s just anti-musician.

In spite of Jim Dear’s presumed meager musician salary, the house he and Darling share is gorgeous. All of Lady and the Tramp’s set design is gorgeous, full of picture-perfect Victorian houses with manicured green lawns, fitting right alongside Disney World’s Main Street USA. Beautiful as it all is, there is a slight Uncanny Valley feel to just how pristine everything is, something a bit artificial which ties in nicely to a theme-park world where a hidden system of underground tunnels makes for easy cleaning.

The acting also extends to this feeling of aggressive fakery. The voice-acted animals feel like stiff animatronics, much like robotic animals on Disney’s Splash Mountain, with lips that only move a little bit, and eyes that don’t convey as much love as their animated counterparts did. The only standout vocal performance is Sam Elliott as Trusty the bloodhound, because, let’s be real, if Sam Elliott was a dog, he’d certainly be a bloodhound.

jim dear and darling retrieve lady from the pound Disney Plus

Meanwhile, the human roles are on the other end of the theme park-feel: they’re caricatured versions of characters from a park-meet-and-greet, where kids get to meet a condensed version of their favorite character in under five minutes. The dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez) brings such a theatrical gravitas to his role that it feels like the big moment of a park stage show. As Darling, Kiersey Clemons speaks with a princess sweetness perfectly calibrated to please young children.

None of this is necessarily bad when it comes to theme parks, which are designed to be idealized fantasy worlds full of gleeful artificiality, an immersive form of escapism. But turning a beloved animated movie which served as an inspiration to the look of Disney’s iconic parks into the equivalent of a 30-minute stage-show adaptation, packed into a hectic park day’s itinerary, does the original film a disservice.

The original “Bella Notte” scene, where Tramp and Lady share a romantic dinner, is soft and gently romantic. The shy dogs accidentally brush noses, and the scene pans to the animated stars above, as the disembodied choral voices sing about the new love blossoming between these two puppies. They don’t look like real dogs, but the love between them feels real.

In the live-action remake, the restaurant staff at Tony’s feel like they’re about to pitch the Disney Dining Plan as they gesture to what looks like the actual theme-park version of Tony’s in Magic Kingdom. The world of this movie is a reality, but not. It’s selling a pleasant idea. And maybe that’s the point — this is the Disneyfied version of the past, full of milkmen, gas lamps, steamboats, and corseted dresses, all the accents of 1909 and none of the actual conflict.

Disney Plus’ Lady and the Tramp flattens the original movie’s dreamy love story by trading genuine emotion for artificiality and a past that never existed. While it’s perfectly packaged for family-friendly mass consumption, it adds nothing new or noteworthy and ultimately detracts from the original story.

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