Lady and the Tramp: Platinum Edition Review
Note: the bulk of this review is copied and pasted from my review of the UK release. If you want to see how the US release measures up against that version, skip down to the technical section.
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.
In my review of the UK release, I criticised Disney for failing to provide two important features: (1) the original theatrical audio mix and (2) the 1.33:1 Academy version of the film.
For this North American edition, the first of these problems is no longer an issue, as Disney have provided a Dolby Digital 3.0 track replicating the multi-channel soundtrack that accompanied CinemaScope prints of the film. Because there are no rear channels, and because multi-channel audio was such a novelty in the 1950s, there are a number of split channel effects emphasising the width of the sound stage in a way that more recent mixes tend not to do. The dialogue is reasonably clear, although obviously constrained by the age of the materials, and the echo effect present on the 5.1 remix, which I referred to in my review of the UK release (and which remains an issue for the 5.1 remix included here), is completely absent. French and Spanish 5.1 dubs are also provided. The film (but, as was the case with the UK release, not the extras) is subtitled in English.
Unfortunately, the Academy version of the film remains absent. 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, and, in the narrower Academy version, a number of scenes were specifically recomposed in order to keep all the important action within the frame. For this release, however, the 1.33:1 version on offer is merely a pan and scanned version of the Cinemascope print, and the inclusion of such a botch job in a release aimed at serious collectors is disappointing to say the least.
Either way, the US transfer is a slightly inferior to the UK variant. It's softer - unavoidable, admittedly, since NTSC has nearly 100 fewer lines of resolution than PAL, and in a film with a ratio this wide resolution is everything. However, it also has more visible compression artefacts. Initially, I thought that this was because two versions of the film were included on the same disc, but the widescreen version of the US edition actually has a higher overall bit rate than its UK counterpart.
For those who are interested in seeing the specific differences between the two releases, please see the comparison on my web site, which also includes the old, out of print R1 limited issue version.
Unlike most recent Disney 2-disc releases, which have spread the bonus materials fairly evenly across both DVDs, the only extras included on the first disc of Lady and the Tramp are a brief preview for the contents of the second disc, and a series of "sneak peeks" for future theatrical and DVD releases. As usual, these can be skipped, but they are annoying to say the least. Disney have also implemented what they refer to as "FastPlay", a feature which, if you leave the disc alone after inserting it, will automatically play the sneak peeks and then go straight to the film. Viewers should be warned, however, that it defaults to playing the pan and scan version of the film with the 5.1 audio remix, so leaving the disc to its own devices is not advised.
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. Also included in the musical category is a new music video for the "Bella Notte" song, performed by Steve Tyrell. This feature was missing from the UK release, and, frankly, those who purchased that version are not missing anything.
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. The absence of the Academy format version of the film is disappointing, but, despite slightly poorer image quality, this version is an overall superior package to its UK counterpart, thanks to the inclusion of the original 3-channel audio mix.