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"Lady and the Tramp" Diamond Edition: Go Ahead and Fall In Love Again

by on February 17, 2012

This is the nightAny old movie runs the risk of looking dated to modern audiences. Intractable problems in classic films can often be solved in seconds by modern technology, cutting-edge film techniques can look awful or clichéd, and changing societal mores can make the innocuous into the questionable or the outright offensive. There’s a fine line that separates the true classics from the rest of the pack despite those dated elements, with a perfect example being Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. It’s really not hard to see why the film has endured and become one of Disney’s most beloved classics, charming audiences of all ages for more than five decades and likely to hold its position for at least five more.

The difference between a movie that’s a classic and one that’s just old and dated is that the former will say something enduring and with value regardless of its technological or social trappings. In the case of Lady and the Tramp, we’re treated to a lovely romance between the two dogs of the title: the pampered housedog Lady and the street-smart, roguish Tramp. On the one hand, Lady and the Tramp isn’t a whole lot more than the usual “boy meets girl” story, where the only real twist is that the boy and the girl are both dogs. There are also a lot of things that date the film, from the doctor making house calls in a horse-drawn carriage to deliver a baby to the subtle nods to gender roles in the human owners. There are elements in the filmmaking that wouldn’t pass muster today, like the overly broad ethnic caricatures of evil Siamese cats or Italian restaurant owners. And yet, the emotional core of the film ensures that all these visible obstacles aren’t much more than pebbles pinging against the bottom of a fast-moving car. The technology and lifestyle shown in the movie might have been in the memories of some of the older adults watching it in 1955, but now they just make the movie a period piece. It’s less important that the Siamese cats are caricatures and more important that they’re evil, as all cats are (at least to dogs). If the Italian characters are overly broad, their operatic-sized presentation also makes it more plausible that they’d break out into song just to serenade a pair of dogs.

It's a beautiful night...More importantly, as with the beautifully rendered dancing scene in Sleeping Beauty, any and all of these petty concerns simply melt away when confronted with the luminously beautiful “Bella Notte” scene, as we watch Lady and the Tramp fall hopelessly in love with each other despite the fact that, fundamentally, it’s a scene of two dogs eating spaghetti while two big Italian guys sing a sappy song in the background. It is a scene that simply should not work at all, and perhaps it does simply because Lady and the Tramp is audacious enough to do it anyway. The same thing happens in a different way with Peggy Lee’s show-stopping musical number “He’s a Tramp,” as the Pekingese she’s voicing shimmies her way through a good old-fashioned torch song while the dogs voiced by the Mello Men howl and bark their accompaniment in the background. There’s a reason why these scenes have carved a permanent spot in the pop culture consciousness: they both can say something enduring and of value, regardless of the technological and social trappings. Yes, it’s the same old story (a fight for love and glory, etc), but it became an old story for a reason and it continues to be an old story because it gets told in ways like this. It all adds up to a package with so much charm and good humor that it’s nearly impossible to avoid getting swept up in the story no matter how many times you’ve heard something like it before.

Another of my favorite aspects of Lady and the Tramp is the way it takes great pains not to anthropomorphize the dogs too much, ensuring that everything from camera angles to the characters’ interpretations of their humans’ actions is always presented from a dog’s perspective. We never see much of people other than hands and feet and disembodied voices, and as with 101 Dalmatians, anyone who’s spent any time with dogs will immediately recognize the habits and body language of Lady, the Tramp, or their friends Jock and Trusty. These dogs are entirely believable as dogs, not people in dog suits. Even so, they’ve also been given just enough human traits and tics that we can pick up on, like the way Lady’s ears are used like long hair or the remarkably subtle facial expressions as Lady puzzles over what a baby is or Tramp recounts what a baby really means to a house dog. This is definitely a movie for dog lovers, and or one likely to make someone into a dog lover if they’re on the fence.

And they call it Bella NotteLady and the Tramp is the latest Disney classic to get the Diamond Edition treatment on Blu-ray disc, with the same marvelous results as on their last few releases. Lady and the Tramp was the first animated feature to be released in the extremely widescreen CinemaScope aspect ratio (2.55:1), which means that the frame is letterboxed even on high-definition TV sets. Even so, the visuals are stunningly sharp and vivid, although as with the Dumbo Diamond Edition Blu-ray, the restoration removes every trace of film grain from the image; a minor quibble at best but still something I think is worth noting. Aurally, the Blu-ray comes with multiple audio tracks, including a 7.1 DTS-HD soundtrack, a restored original feature soundtrack, and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks in French and Spanish. Both original soundtracks sound superb, although the 7.1 DTS-HD track doesn’t make much use of anything but front and left/right speakers.

Like Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp doesn’t seem to have warranted an entire second disc of extras on Blu-ray. The good news is that all the significant bonus features on the original DVD have been ported over to the new Blu-ray, omitting only the forgettable interactive games and DVD-ROM features. This leaves several worthwhile documentaries on the making of the film, several deleted scenes, and the original trailers for the movie and its re-releases. All the bonuses look like they were transferred in standard-definition. Some new bonuses were created for this Blu-ray, but none really match up to those original bonuses. In “Remembering Dad,” Diane Disney Miller reminisces about her famous father (with a rather too visible plug for the Disney Family Museum near the end). It may be somewhat lightweight, but that’s actually what makes it interesting because of the way it humanizes its subject. It turns Walt Disney back into a human being, which is no mean feat considering that “Dad” has become more identified with the massive multi-national media conglomerate he founded, not to mention the way his name has become an adjective or a pejorative. The second major bonus feature is three more deleted scenes, seemingly from the even earlier take on the story pitched by Joe Grant in the 1930’s before the project was shelved. The kindest thing I can say about them is that it’s not hard to see why Uncle Walt killed the project at the time, but I suppose it’s encouraging to see that even story men as renowned as Joe Grant didn’t slam home runs all the time. Disney has also packed in a brand-new DVD copy of the movie, which includes the “Remembering Dad” featurette and one of the older bonus features from the last DVD release. The DVD shows a small but visible improvement from the 1996 Platinum Edition DVD, looking just a bit sharper, brighter, and more saturated than before, and stretching the image to fill the full anamorphic widescreen real estate (click any thumbnail still to see comparison shots between the two DVDs).

Yes, I can even forgive them for thisThe last Blu-ray bonus is not included in the packaging: a new Disney “Second Screen” application, which can be downloaded for an iPad or run on the Disney Second Screen website. Like the Second Screen app for Bambi, I think either version is worth investigating simply as a free, interactive, multi-media artbook. In true “Second Screen” mode, syncing the app with the Blu-ray will lead to an “Inside Walt’s Story Meetings” commentary track, which re-enact notes passed around the studio and taken after sweatbox sessions. Unfortunately, sync is accomplished through either BD-Live or through an audio sync, but my older Blu-ray player is not BD-Live enabled and the audio sync just refused to work on my iPad. I don’t know if this is something common or not and don’t recall it being an issue with the Bambi Second Screen app, so be aware that the feature may not work exactly as advertised. I also find it mildly amusing that I need to hook up my Blu-ray player to the Internet so it can find a device sitting in the same room, and question why that solution should be more reliable than one that just involves the two devices.

Disney’s Diamond Edition Blu-rays have all been exceptionally well-done, and Lady and the Tramp is no exception. It retains its ability to charm despite the years, and I certainly have no serious complaints about its presentation on Blu-ray disc. The fact that it comes with a DVD and all the bonuses from the previous Platinum Edition DVD also makes it feasible to sell or gift the old DVD release if you’re upgrading to this one, which isn’t something that has always been true in the past. Lady and the Tramp is definitely a product of a different time, and it’s amusing to see how far things have progressed since the idealized early 1900’s depicted in the movie. What is even more remarkable is how little some things have changed in that time, and how much Lady and the Tramp still has to offer modern audiences that is enduring and of value.

Images © Disney. All rights reserved. All stills are from the DVD in the package or the 1996 Platinum Edition DVD release, and do not represent the image quality of the Blu-ray disc.

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