Andrew Bujalski is something of a mercurial figure in American cinema; his Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation created a new genre ( mumblecore) and launched him towards such surprising indie fare as the alarming Computer Chess, a seemingly genial look at retro-computing style the concludes with a final scene which is genuine nightmare fodder. 2018’s Support The Girls was his best to date, a humanist account of women fighting a hard-scrabble existence in a Hooters-style eatery, leading critical figures such as myself to sign up for daily updates as to what Bujalski was up to.
Somehow, that next project is the live action version of Lady and the Tramp that appeared with a remarkable lack of fanfare on Disney+. There is form for this kind of decision; Noah Baumbach brought considerable wit to Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Bujalski’s aspirational, working class heroes are a good fit for the original 1955 animation. Some have suggested that Disney have dumped this $60 million project on their streaming service like a tv movie, but that’s no more accurate that saying that Netflix ‘dumped’ The Irishman; these are loss leaders. On watching Lady and the Tramp, it’s hard to imagine it doing the business of Lion King, Aladdin or other 2019 hits, but it’s still a prestige project with points to commend it.
Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons play Jim and Darling; he gifts her a dog, Lady, voiced by Tessa Thompson, who falls for Tramp, a diamond in the rough voiced by Justin Theroux. Tramp’s back-story, as to how he was abandoned by his owners, is genuinely heart-breaking, and chimes with Lady’s understanding that when the baby comes, the dog goes. This is a bitter-sweet thematic for a children’s film, and Lady and the Tramp balances both worlds, with angry dog-catchers, nasty-minded dogs (Clancy Brown) and restrictive mussels like the one Tramp sorts out for Lady. Other retro-items like the Siamese cats which stitch up poor Lady have been altered to avoid accusations of racism, but the less said about Ashley Jensen’s stereotyped Scottish terrier the better; some forms of racism die harder than others.
Lady and the Tramp’s reputation hinges largely on the animation, and the designs for the dogs here are the problem; neither Lady or the Tramp look quite as good as their animated selves, and the musical elements are inconsistent compared to Lion King or Aladdin’s full scores. But there are points to relish, like Ken Jeong, Adrian Martinez and Arturo Castro, all of who project exactly the right larger than life quality for live-action Disney. And the classic restaurant scene still works, with Lady and the Tramp sharing a spaghetti dinner under the auspices of master-chef and Oscar-winner F Murray Abraham. For Bujalski, co-writing with Kari Granlund, it’s a time-passer, hopefully on the way to more personal projects, but there’s enough elements consistent with his other works to make this worth a look for fans of his downtrodden style.