Lady and the Tramp: Special Edition Review
Lady and the Tramp has always been one of my favourite Disney films. Others may prefer the natural beauty of Bambi, or the fairytale world of Cinderella, or the majesty of The Lion King, but personally I've always found myself drawn to this meticulously crafted and wonderfulled observant tale of two lovers from opposite sides of the track. In case you thought I was talking about people, I'm not: the protagonists of Lady and the Tramp are dogs, but their characterisation is so adept that it is entirely possible to view them as living, breathing human beings and, on an emotional level at least, I consider this to be Walt Disney's masterpiece.
The film's heroine is Lady, a pampered Spaniel who lives a life of luxury, her every whim catered to by her owners, whom she knows only as "Darling" and "Jim Dear". Her blissful world is turned upside down, however, first by the arrival of a baby, and subsequently by her owners' decision to head off on holiday, leaving both her and the baby in the care of the venomous Aunt Sarah and her two wicked Siamese cats. A series of incidents leads to Lady running away, where she falls in which Tramp, a carefree mongrel without collar or owner. Love blossoms between the pair, and soon Lady finds herself faced with a momentous decision: will she enjoy a life without boundaries with Tramp, or will she acknowledge her duty and return to her rightful home?
The story of 'rich girl meets poor boy' has been told countless times, and one would think that it would be difficult to bring anything new to the table. By casting the unlikely couple as dogs, however, Walt Disney does just that, and brings an entirely new perspective to an age-old concept. As with many Disney films in which the main characters are animals, the humans are marginalised, and those that are not played for comedy (the Italian chefs, the Irish policeman) or as hate figures (the repugnant Aunt Sarah) are rarely shown as anything more than a pair of legs and feet. It's a masterful touch, and the result is that we really do see the world through the eyes of a dog. (Not that the decision to conceal the upper bodies and faces of Jim Dear and Darling is a particularly novel concept - see the countless Tom and Jerry cartoons in which the same thing was done with Mammy Two-Shoes.)
As I mentioned before, every aspect of the film is wonderfully observed, with the tiniest of details in the behaviour and mannerisms of both humans and animals captured to perfection. Witness, for example, the insincere fawning of the sinister Siamese cats (incidentally, I credit this film with instilling in me a lifelong distrust of felines), or the incredibly believable interaction between Lady and Tramp in the celebrated "Spaghetti and Meatballs" scene, which is frequently referred to (rightly so, I might add) as one of the most romantic moments in cinema history. Lady and the Tramp has been marketed on more than one occasion as "Disney's happiest picture", and while the film is not without its moments of sheer joy and witty comedy (Tramp's various impersonations of humans are a particular highlight), I consider this statement to be wholly inaccurate. With its underlying themes of neglect, imprisonment and even class snobbery, it's not exactly a laugh a minute. Indeed, this is an unusually sombre (and, dare I say it, adult?) example of Disney animation.
With its somewhat loose story structure and relaxed pace, this is a film where the viewer must be content to simply sit back and enjoy the characterisations and the craft of the animation itself. The quality of the latter is not in dispute: this film very much represents the studio's "old guard" at the height of their game. By this stage in their careers, there was literally nothing they could not turn their hands to, and this is demonstrated by the meticulous attention to detail in the animation. All the animals have their own individual quirks, and their mannerisms and movements are all entirely accurate to their respective breeds, many of them based on gentle national stereotyping that would probably never have been considered had the film been made in today's politically correct climate. On more than one occasion (Milt Kahl's animation of Tramp waking up and stretching beside the railway tracks; Eric Larson's marvellously choreographed work on Peg's song and dance number in the dog pound) the results are jaw-droppingly close to real life, while still containing enough caricature for it to be obvious that these movements were not simply rotoscoped. The voice casting is also excellent, with singer/songwriter Peggy Lee providing the speaking (and singing) voices for most of the female characters, while the male cast, including Larry Roberts, Bill Thompson, Bill Baucom and Alan Reed (Fred Flintstone himself) are equally well chosen.
While the animation and performances are of the highest level, though, some might find the relaxed nature of the plot slightly less than engaging. At least the first third of the film is pure setup, doing little more than establishing the personalities of the main characters and allowing them to interact. This, coupled with the fact that a true villain is never introduced (the likes of Aunt Sarah and the local dog catcher take on this role for brief periods, but there is no sustained equivalent to Snow White's Wicked Witch or Aladdin's Jafar), means that it is entirely character-driven. Personally, because I love the characters and the world they inhabit, coupled with the craft of the animation, I don't have a problem with the relatively languid pacing and frequent lack of tension, but I can see how some viewers might find themselves feeling a little disengaged.
In many respects, Lady and the Tramp represents a pinnacle for Disney's animated features. While other entries in the studio's impressive filmography may contain more of the fairytale magic that makes them so popular with young children, this film constitutes the art of animation at its finest. In technical terms it is beyond reproach, and its themes are mature enough that it resonates just as much, if not more, with adult audiences than with children. Truly, this is a film that belongs in everyone's collection.
Lady and the Tramp is the seventh title in what, in North America, is known as the Platinum Editions collection, a bi-yearly series of 2-disc releases of particularly successful animated classics that are, supposedly, given the all-star treatment. Some titles in this range have fared better than others, with the last one I reviewed, Bambi, exhibiting some noticeable artefacts as a result of the over-zealous digital clean-up process to which it had been subjected.
The good news is that, while Lady and the Tramp has also gone through the wringer at Lowry Digital Images, the process this time round has been less damaging. While it's true that any hint of print damage and film grain has been excised, meaning that the movie now looks like it was made in 2006 rather than 1955, it is by and large a perfectly eye-pleasing transfer. Presented anamorphically in its original Cinemascope 2.55:1 aspect ratio (not 2.35:1, as the press materials claim), the transfer looks a little soft but in all other respects - encoding, colour reproduction, and so on - is excellent. Personally, I would have preferred a transfer more faithful to the title's filmic origins, but this is undeniably a major step up from the now out of print, non-anamorphic version from 1999.
There is one caveat, however. Lady and the Tramp was shot concurrently in both Cinemascope and standard Academy (1.33:1) versions, in order to cater for cinemas unable to display the new wider format. While press materials for the (currently unavailable) US release suggest that both editions will be available in the same package, the UK release includes only the Cinemascope version. The Academy version differs in numerous ways and should be considered to be just as legitimate a way to watch the film (in fact, the Cinemascope version was actually more of an afterthought than something that was planned all along), so its absence here is disappointing.
(I've added a comparison between this new release and the old, out of print R1 limited issue to my site. When I receive my copy of the R1 special edition release, I'll add it to the comparison.)
Also missing from the UK release (and, again, present on the US version, going by what the press releases say) is the film's original mono audio mix. In its place is a new "Disney Enhanced Home Theatre Mix" Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which I simply cannot accept as representative of the original intentions of Walt Disney and his crew. As a result, I have given the audio for this DVD a score of zero. For what it's worth, it's not a bad track, but it's not particularly distinctive in any way, and the artificial addition of multiple channels gives the audio a somewhat disconcerting echo effect.
French, German and Dutch 5.1 dubs are also provided, in addition to an audio descriptive English track. The film is subtitled in English, French, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish, while the extras disc includes French, German and Dutch. The lack of English subtitles for the bonus materials is disappointing to say the least.
Unlike most recent Disney 2-disc releases, which have spread the bonus materials fairly evenly across both DVDs, the only extra included on the first disc of Lady and the Tramp is a Disney Dog Trivia trivia game. The rest of the materials are housed on their own disc, and by and large they are of an exceptionally high standard.
The second disc begins with two Deleted Scenes. One is an abandoned concept involving a fantasy in which dogs are the masters and humans are the pets (which surprisingly anticipates a key feature in the as yet unpublished One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which Disney subsequently adapted), while the other is an alternate variation of the arrival of the baby and the accompanying lullaby. Both of these scenes can be played with or without introductions by Eric Goldberg, animator of the Genie in Aladdin and co-director of Pocahontas, who fronts most of the bonus features for this release in much the same way that Andreas Deja did for Bambi.
A four-minute featurette covers the development of the Siamese cat song, describing abandoned concepts and the origins of the sing they sing. Goldberg again provides narration and explanation.
A whole bunch of Games and Activities follow. I've already commented at length on my thoughts on the inclusion of such features on a DVD aimed at serious collectors, so I won't repeat myself here. However, suffice to say that I very much doubt that even the young children at which these games are aimed will get much enjoyment out of them.
The 53-minute Lady's Pedigree: The Making of Lady and the Tramp is of a high enough standard that I will not bemoan the absence of an audio commentary (although that doesn't mean that one wouldn't have been appreciated - indeed, I'm sure an animation historian like John Canemaker would have been able to provide a fascinating track). Split into seven sections, which can be viewed either separately or as one long documentary, this in-depth retrospective takes us from the films roots, explaining the resonance the world portrayed in the film had with Walt Disney's childhood, and then carrying on through to the production process, before wrapping up with a brief retrospective. Because so few of the individuals that worked on the film are still alive, the majority of the participants are either historians or relatives of crew members. More recent Disney animators like Andreas Deja, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg also chip in with their thoughts, but it is the wealth of archival material and solid historical research that makes this documentary so rewarding. It also exhibits surprisingly little of the whitewashing that tends to occur in such retrospectives from the studio, discussing the bad blood between Disney and former employee Joe Grant, who seems to have been the artist responsible for originating many of the film's central ideas (something that Walt was always reticent to admit). While the benchmark in documentary materials on an animated feature remains, for me, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, this is still an all-round excellent feature.
Finding Lady: The Art of the Storyboard follows. In this 13-minute piece, Goldberg traces the history of the storyboard, from its origins as a tool developed by Walt Disney for the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, to its more recent application in live action films. A wealth of different people are interviewed, ranging from Disney story artist Burny Mattinson to Kevin Costner (director of Open Range) and Andrew Adamson (Shrek and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe).
Afterwards, a 12-minute featurette investigating the Original 1943 Storyboards for Lady and the Tramp plays. The majority of the original boards for this work in progress version are played out with Goldberg and Mattinson providing narration and voices. Among other differences, this version of the film spends far less time on Tramp (called Homer in this version) and features a far greater emphasis on the rivalry between Lady and the Siamese cats, which is shortened to a single scene in the final version.
A selection of excerpts from the DisneyLand TV shows follows. With a total running time of just under 50 minutes, a wealth of material is provided here, the bulk of it pertaining to Lady and the Tramp. Although the lengthy clips from the film itself do get a little redundant, these shows still constitute an excellent resource and offer an opportunity to hear Walt himself discussing the film's development. The various obviously staged conversations between animators and artists are also worth watching for their comic value.
Theatrical Trailers are included for the three occasions on which the film was released theatrically: its original release in 1955, and the 1972 and 1986 re-releases. It's interesting to compare the differences in the tactics used to market the film in these three distinctive periods.
The extras conclude with a series of extensive Galleries, which can be viewed either in still frame or slideshow form. Split into five sections - Visual Development, Character Design, Storyboard Art, Layouts and Backgrounds, and Production Photos - there are literally hundreds of images on offer here.
The sheer scope of the bonus features on offer, and the quality of the restoration, make this 2-disc special edition of Lady and the Tramp a decidedly impressive package. However, the absence of two vital components - the Academy format version of the film, and the original mono soundtrack - mean that I am somewhat hesitant to recommend this release and would instead advise customers who are likely to miss these features to wait for the February 28th release of the Region 1 version.