13 April 2012

Disney Daze: Week 15: Lady and the Tramp

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Lady and the Tramp is unique among the first dozen Disney features as it was the only full-length story whose origin actually began at the studios. In the late 1930s, Dumbo co-writer Joe Grant approached Walt with an idea based on his dog, Lady, who he felt was neglected after Grant and his wife had had their first child. Walt liked the idea and gave Grant permission to develop the idea further. Unfortunately, the story never seemed to click. A few years later Walt read a short story in Cosmopolitan magazine that involved a sardonic dog he thought would be a perfect contrast to Lady's more refined ways. The studio bought the rights to the story and incorporated this new character into Grant's drafts. Once official production on the film was begun, Walt then commissioned the short story's author, Ward Greene, to write a novelization of the story the studio had created.

The resulting film is a crackerjack piece of entertainment that hits all of the right notes. Lady and the Tramp begins with a beautifully conceived scene of the recently-gifted puppy Lady tenaciously fighting to sleep in bed with the humans of her new household. The sequence plays out wonderfully as we see the dog whine, cajole, and con her way upstairs and into bed. The final shot of the puppy tucked in and sleeping transitions seamlessly to a morning six months later with a fully grown Lady waking up on the same spot of the bed. What follows furthers the phenomenal ability of the story and animation department as Lady bounds downstairs to meet the day. We are treated to a perfect simulacrum of a dog's perspective, the joys of burying a bone, the indignity of pigeons, and the duty of delivering a newspaper.

While there is some stiff rotoscoping apparent in the movement of some of the human co-stars, the animation in Lady and the Tramp is on the whole, sumptuous. The design and actions of the animals may not be quite as naturalistic as the beauty of Bambi - whose incomparable achievements are becoming increasingly apparent - but it is stellar work nonetheless. Lady and the Tramp easily contains the greatest animation in a Disney feature since that aforementioned masterpiece. The animators here capture the real essence of these creatures, most notably the canine stars who scratch and wag with deft realism. The film also boasts some truly lavish background work, depicting a turn-of-the-century town replete with tree-lined lanes and lush Victorian houses. Part of this lushness comes from Disney's decision to switch from a standard 1.33 aspect ratio, which was used on all preceding features, to the newer CinemaScope frame size. The artists needed to fill in the extra space on the edges and more attention was placed on fleshing out the backgrounds.

The film boasts an international cast of occasionally politically incorrect caricatures. There are the obvious accents and mannerisms affixed to the different breeds of dogs (the Scottish Terrier Jock speaks with a heavy brogue) as well as the exaggerated ethnic stereotypes of Italian restauranteur Tony, but no characterization comes close to being as offensive as that of the visiting Aunt Sarah's two Siamese cats, who terrorize Lady as they sing their insidiously catchy theme. While the lyric is forgettable at best and distasteful at worst ("when we finding baby, there are milk nearby") by far the best part of "The Siamese Cat Song" is the backing music, which consists of a repetitive plinking punctuated with gongs and thumps. The music sounds vaguely contemporary, like a Casio loop the RZA would use on a deep Wu-Tang Clan cut.

Luckily many of the characters in the film come through looking better than the cats. The best secondary character is the busy beaver who unwittingly frees Lady from the muzzle the hapless Aunt Sarah affixes upon her. The beaver makes a grand comedic entrance, measuring out sections of a recently felled tree. His professionalism and obsession with his damming task provide endless founts of levity. The mutt Tramp convinces the beaver to chomp down on the muzzle's strap by selling him on the idea that the restraint is a tool to help move logs more quickly. The scene is perfectly paced, leading up to the log rolling ever faster downhill, taking the beaver with it before they both go crashing into the river.

Lady and the Tramp is chock full of wonderfully constructed scenes like this. The beaver's spotlight is the film's great comedic moment, while the iconic spaghetti dinner provided by the singing Italians is a master class in romance. It is interesting to think that out of all the Disney features - many of which star princesses redeemed by true love - the greatest romantic moment is of two dogs eating leftovers in an alley. Later on in the film, Lady and the Tramp goes for the jugular when we are introduced to all of the unwanted dogs locked up at the pound.  They howl a mournful song as we see face after face of destitute pooches, their eyes filled with tears. It's sentimental, maudlin and manipulative, but it is also the Disney studio at the zenith of its storytelling powers.  

Lady and the Tramp is more than a little like its two titular protagonists, equal parts elegant and electrifying. It is a relentlessly crowd-pleasing romantic adventure told with unparalleled confidence and grace. The film's legacy can still be felt generations after its release. Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton, director of such contemporary animated classics as Finding Nemo and WALL*E, recently appeared on the Filmspotting podcast where he sung the praises of Lady and the Tramp. It's hard not to see the effect the film had on Stanton. Beyond the simple marvel that is the film's economic storytelling; the fish tank Nemo calls a surrogate home feels like a stand-in for Lady and the Tramp's pound, while the opening montage of Lady running happily and wordlessly through the yard echoes WALL*E's daily routine on an abandoned planet. I can think of many a fate worse than being in WALL*E's position, wandering through a desolate wasteland with an old dubbed tape of Lady and the Tramp as my only companion.

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