It is by now a well-established fact that the effect of rendering real-life animals with CGI to make them look like they can talk and express human emotions is inarguably creepy. At best, it just doesn’t look believable, and at worst, it is the stuff of nightmares, as evidenced by the online backlash to the terrifyingly photorealistic Pumbaa in this summer’s remake of The Lion King. (One Twitter user summed up the criticism, sarcastically writing, “Why would anyone want the character, human touch, and charm of 2D animation when you could look into a visually accurate warthog’s black, dead eyes as it sings you a song telling you not to be worried.”)
Luckily, Disney’s new live action adaptation of Lady and the Tramp, premiering on the streaming platform Disney+ on Nov. 12, leans more toward inoffensively unrealistic than unsettling. The remake, directed by Charlie Bean, is faithful to the 1955 classic animated film—except, thankfully, in the depiction of the troublemaking cats that terrorize Lady, portrayed as racist Asian caricatures in the original.
Set in the aughts of the 20th century, it is a story of puppy love between Lady, a beloved Cocker Spaniel from a wealthy family, and a stray nicknamed “Tramp,” a scruffy mutt from the bad part of town. He takes her on a rollicking adventure that teaches her to broaden her horizons and she in turn proves to him that people can be loyal. And that spaghetti and meatballs kiss sequence, accordion-playing Italian restauranteurs and all, is just as adorable as you remember.
It turns out that I am a big softie when it comes to kids’ movies starring actual living puppies, because I am confident that Lady and the Tramp is a wholly unnecessary, worse version of the original, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. The film’s canine stars are voiced by Tessa Thompson (Avengers: Endgame, Creed) and Justin Theroux (The Leftovers). Sam Elliot, with his sleepy Southern drawl, is perfectly cast as the aging bloodhound Trusty, Lady’s neighbor. Kiersey Clemons and Thomas Mann assume the roles of Lady’s kind owners, Darling and Jim Dear.
It is difficult to resist the urge to coo out loud when Lady first appears onscreen, a floppy-eared puppy who bursts out of a prettily wrapped Christmas present to bathe her new owners in slobbery kisses. A scene in which she snuggles up in bed with Darling despite Jim Dear’s half-hearted protestations will no doubt resonate with any viewer who has ever owned and loved a dog before. Adult Lady (played by Rose, a very good girl who is in no way responsible for the weird CGI Disney inflicts upon her) shows up a few minutes later, though, and this is where the live action remake cynics will be tempted to turn off their TVs.
Watching actual dogs talk is a strange and uncomfortable experience for the very simple reason that actual dogs are just not supposed to talk. In Lady and the Tramp, there is an unnatural dissonance between the pups’ overly animated facial tics—raised eyebrows, open-mouthed smiles—and their glassy, expressionless eyes. However, since the film’s subjects are cuddly, lovable dogs and not distinctly un-cuddly, pointy-tusked warthogs, it is easier to overlook the kinks that Disney is clearly still working out in building its live action remake canon.
Look, this is not the tragic Shakespearean opus that is The Lion King. There is no Mufasa-getting-trampled-to-death-by-wildebeests moment. It was billed in the original promotional materials as Walt Disney’s “happiest motion picture.” So, the presence of real dogs, once you get used to whatever is going on with their faces, lends some emotional legitimacy to a film with otherwise low stakes.
It was the right call to forego a theatrical release for a number of reasons. Disney’s past attempts in this reboot genre (The Jungle Book, Aladdin, The Lion King) were all met with mixed to negative reviews, and the source material in this case has far less to offer in terms of flashy, big screen potential. It is basically just dogs talking in funny voices and walking around an unnamed US city with scenic Victorian architecture. I was surprised at how little I remembered of the film, besides the iconic meatball-nudge-kiss scene (as it shall henceforth be formally known) and the offensive Siamese cat song.
But after watching the remake, that actually checks out, because really nothing else of note happens. The climax involves Tramp saving Darling and Jim Dear’s baby from a rat perched menacingly on the edge of her cradle, and as distressing as a mangy rodent threatening to eat a baby sounds, the execution is far from thrilling. While the film’s highlights—Janelle Monáe’s sultry rendition “He’s a Tramp” and the aforementioned meatball-nudge-kiss—are genuinely entertaining and heartwarming, they definitely do not warrant a big screen release.
Lady and the Tramp is ultimately a perfectly adorable kids’ movie, and, in its favor, it does not seem all that concerned with trying to be anything else. There really are worse ways to spend an hour and 40 minutes than watching two cute dogs fall in love.