[21 February 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Why is Disney’s Lady and the Tramp so beloved? Why, amongst all the company’s classics, does it seem to hold the most sway among parents and children alike? One could argue the animals, anthropomorphized and acting like universal RomCom givens. After all cute is the great equalizer. One could also draw on the whole star-crossed lovers angle. It’s worked before. There’s humor and wit, wonderful animation and a real sense of fantasy and fun. But why Lady and the Tramp? Why not the same level of unfettered devotion for Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, or Dumbo? Granted, those films have a rabid and heartfelt following, but whenever the dating dogs movie gets a mention, everyone appears to be a fan. So what is it about Lady and the Tramp that inspires such loyalty? A look at the latest premium release from the House of Mouse doesn’t offer any new insights or ideas.
Clearly, people love their pets. Those who don’t end up on the nightly news either hoarding them or hurting them develop the kind of bond that’s irreversible and very, very real. So tapping into such affection is not very hard. But if being adorable and loyal was all something needed to be successful, YouTube and social media sites would be overwhelmed with button level charm…oh wait. Anyway. the truth belies the question. Love is clearly the reason Lady and the Tramp (new to Blu-ray) defies the Disney expectations. There is an internal level of romance that perfectly matches and balances out the external appreciation of the film. In the vernacular, we call it a ‘mutual admiration society.’ By some kind of cartoon magic, the affinity one feels for the film is directly reflected back in every tender, telling animated moment. Oh, and never underestimate the allure of animals in peril.
As for the story, Lady is a beautify cocker spaniel who lives in the house of the Dear family. She is well taken care of and has a good time hanging out with neighborhood buddies Jock (a Scottish terrier) and Trusty (a bloodhound). Every once in a while, a stray from the area, known only by the name “Tramp,” comes around, causing trouble. When Mrs. Dear becomes pregnant, he warns Lady that “once the baby moves in, the dog moves out.” Eventually, a misunderstanding between the pet and the people in her life cause her to end up on the street. Tramp takes her under his wing and shows her the kind of carefree and leisurely existence he leads. Naturally, they must avoid the local dogcatcher. Things take an eventual turn toward the dark when Lady finds herself in the pound. Rescued, she reveals an act by her buddy Tramp which turns his scoundrel status into something worth celebrating…and saving.
While the above plot description is a bit weak on specifics, it illustrates the narrative basics which drive this delightful pen and ink classic. We have the spoiled and somewhat suspicious show dog, true to the feminine tag she’s been saddled with, learning that there is something serious beyond the green grass and snobbish structure of her home. On the other side, Tramp trades on the realities of being abandoned and required to fend for oneself. As with many examples of the clueless being clued in by the capable, we get the standard street beat tropes. Lady learns to fend for herself and - eventually - protect her own, while our haggard hero is vindicated for his rough and tumble behaviors. Together, they brave fear, right wrongs, and discover the true meaning of “man’s best friend.”
With big eyes that suggest a bestial Keene painting (or, perhaps, a portrait from the Pity Kitty/Pity Puppy school of design) and personalities which run the gamut of American/UK archetypes, the characters here are easy to get lost in. Aside from the cats who play villains - Lady and the Tramp doesn’t like felines much - and the humans who come across as narrow-minded to an impractical fault, it’s all a love letter to the cunning canine. We are supposed to see the naiveté in Lady as something to be corrected, while Tramp’s attitude and lack of responsibility is equally dismissed. The carefully constructed story, plotted out to give each participant a pro and con part of the process, teaches the necessary lessons. Every triumph will be tested by tragedy (or the threat of same), all worldviews eventually reconfigured to cement a love for family and fitting in.
As they do with many of their projects, the Disney animators transcend the traps inherent here to turn these two dimensional illustrations into three dimensional dreams. Within a relatively short span, the introduction of Lady and Tramp, and to a lesser extent the rest of the mongrel gang, produces both an instant accessibility and a means of reflecting on our own position on such animals. Pet owners can go a bit overboard, and this movie understands that. It also argues from the four legged friends’ points of view, suggesting we don’t take their imagined feelings into consideration more. Of course, decades ago, families would never dream of dispossessing their dog from his place in front of the fireplace. Today, a child means that Rover ends up in a cage in the laundry room - or worse, back on the no kill shelter shelf.
Because of how it manages both its joys and sorrows, because it finds the inner PETA persona in all of us, Lady and the Tramp becomes more than an entertainment. It becomes an obsession, a ‘can’t-wait-to-see-it-again’ treat that takes a place right alongside your absolute favorite films. Sure, it’s often cheesy and occasionally cruel, but that’s part of the pre post-modern movie ideal. Decades ago, parents believed that kids could handle a bit of horror with their frilly fairytales, and no one dipped into the dire better than Uncle Walt and his wonderful wizards. Fifty-six years later, Lady and the Tramp has lost none of its appeal. In fact, it fits in perfectly with our high tech LOL lifestyle.