Movie Review: The (Insistent, Beautiful, Layered) Magic of LADY AND THE TRAMP Still Endures

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Lady and the Tramp remains one of Walt Disney’s most enduring creations because of its ability to breach even the hardiest of viewer defenses.

And I’m not just talking about myself—Disney’s gorgeously appointed Blu-ray does a lot of the work for me.  The centerpiece of the bonus supplements is an exhaustively researched behind-the-scenes documentary; while we expect the standard production and animation tidbits, the harsh critical appraisals are quite a bit more surprising.

Disney crewmembers question Walt’s decision to soften the film’s ending by letting bloodhound Trusty survive a fatal wagon accident.  Noted animation historian John Canemaker speculates that Disney planned Lady and the Tramp as a counter to the emerging social unrest of the late 1950’s, that the film was Walt’s reactionary attempt at glorifying traditional values just before the world got a whole lot less traditional.  Current Disney animators Eric Goldberg and Andreas Deja share the story of Joe Grant and express more-than-a-little consternation at Walt’s treatment of the man.  For the uninitiated: Grant created the film’s story, and he and Walt got into an argument.  Grant left the studio, and then Disney hired Ward Greene to reappropriate Grant’s ideas without acknowledging Grant’s prior contributions.  No one lets Lady and the Tramp off easy, and kudos to Walt Disney Studios for confronting these criticisms head-on.

I suspect that the studio figured such honesty wouldn’t hurt because none of these issues matter when you’re watching the end product.  What a lovely, slight, effortlessly charming movie.  I went into it armed with the best bile I could muster, and the movie shut me down in under thirty seconds.

Lady and the Tramp‘s first twenty minutes are sublime.  It isn’t just the film’s inspired use of the Cinemascope frame or its beautifully articulated characters (courtesy of Disney’s ace animating team, his “Nine Old Men”); that long opening section offers one of the most accurate and deeply felt depictions of a human-canine relationship ever put on-screen.

We feel Darling’s (that’s another potential gripe!  Everyone—animal and dog alike—calls the human female lead “Darling,” which should enrage the latent feminist in all of us, yet you couldn’t care less about it while the movie plays.  Go figure) joy when she Lady enters the family; we see how they adapt to the dog (and vice versa); and we get a sense of how precious Lady finds their daily routines.

She needs to know she’s the most important thing in Jim and Darling’s lives, and when something threatens that security, it unsettles the very fabric of the film.  Disney and his team are wise enough to note that Aunt Sarah and her horrible Siamese cats (no points for assuming they look/sound like racist Asian stereotypes) aren’t the real threat.

It’s the family’s new baby, and in those moments where Lady finds herself relegated to second-class-citizen status, we know—and Lady does, too, even if she doesn’t want to admit it—that the true order of things has asserted itself.  There’s no going back.

The filmmakers pack so much insight into that opening twenty minutes that the rest of the film, which follows Lady and the Tramp’s courtship, can’t help but feel a little familiar.  Part of that comes from the decision to have the dogs talk in human voices; so much of the first act’s magic comes from Lady’s beautiful nonverbal body language—she doesn’t need words to tell you exactly how she’s feeling.  Part of that familiarity, unfortunately, also comes from the Tramp’s character motivation.  He’s a generic hepcat smoothie, and we know Lady will have him domesticated before the end credits roll.

It’s a testament to the film’s overall caliber that these beats don’t rankle as much as they should.  Even when Lady and the Tramp moves from “great” to “good,” it keeps throwing out little wonderments, from Lady and the Tramp’s idyllic night on the town, to the delightful solution Tramp finds when Lady gets muzzled, to the pair of twin horrors that constitute the finale: the fight against the rat, and Jock & Trusty’s desperate race to save the Tramp from the dogcatcher.

These moments stick.  So does the movie.

Final note: Walt was right about the ending.  It works sooo much better now that Trusty lives.

Disney’s Diamond Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo pack looks and sounds perfect.  The picture has been restored without affecting the texture and age; the audio comes in two sterling options: an immersive 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and a restored mono track (my favorite).

Features are a mix between silly and super-informative, with the balance favoring “super-informative.”  On the silly side: the kid-friendly PuppyPedia: Going to the Dogs featurette and the “Bella Notte” music video.

On the super-informative side: pretty much everything else.  We get two lovely pieces from Disney’s daughter Diane Miller; a great commentary track that mimics the story meetings Walt had with his team; loads of deleted scenes and archival excerpts from the “Disneyland” TV show; two features on the film’s music (including one cut from the final feature); that great documentary I mentioned earlier; another documentary on the Lady and the Tramp storyboards; and the abandoned 1943 storyboard version of the film.  This material is invaluable for animation buffs, and it more-than-makes up for the useless (and, on my home theater setup, inoperable) Disney Second Screen feature.

This lovely film works, whether you want it to or not, and the Blu-ray provides flawless A/V quality and bonus features that are equal parts informative and entertaining.  One of the year’s best HD releases, bar none.

Lady and the Tramp is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.

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