Lady And The Tramp

As charming and beautifully designed as Disney's classic movies are, a mild shadow hangs over many of them, at least for literature fans: Virtually all the studio's greatest titles are based on beloved books or fairy tales that the studio bleached into treacly pastel sweetness. How many children have explored the source material and been shocked (and probably secretly delighted) to discover that P.L. Travers' original Mary Poppins is a hilariously vain, snappish harridan, or that Pinocchio cold-bloodedly murdered Jiminy Cricket? Granted, all myths get remade to suit their times, and Disney's revisionism is no different from the gradual bowdlerization of early fairy tales. But there's still a special magic to Disney movies like Lady And The Tramp—not just because no novels died in the making of this picture, but because without the constraints and agenda of a novel's plot, the filmmakers' imaginations could roam free, and the story could stretch out comfortably.

As a case in point, Lady And The Tramp's unhurried beginning brings Bambi's naturalism into human habitats, as a young couple acquire a cocker-spaniel puppy, Lady, and raise her as a pampered pet. The pooches are the protagonists, but that doesn't become clear until 10 minutes in, when the first one speaks and the focus shifts from life with a dog to life as a dog. Much of the film focuses on Lady (the first Disney role for studio-stalwart-to-be Barbara Luddy), who's experiencing her first rejections and anxieties as her owners prepare to have a baby. The mellow love story that develops between her and a devil-may-care stray named Tramp comes almost as an afterthought; the story's casual, rolling development and its anthropomorphized yet sincerely doggy canines amount to half the fun.

The other half comes from the songs, co-written and performed by Peggy Lee (who later successfully sued Disney for a rightful share of the film's video sales). The buck-toothed, slant-eyed, broken-English-speaking Siamese cats haven't aged well, but the song she gave them is still catchy, and Lee's sloe-eyed, bluesy rendition of "He's A Tramp" will always be magic. In a way, all Disney's classics can be considered originals, in that they established a pattern that other studios are still copying to this day. But thanks to its sweet, lazy pacing and its focus on characters rather than a driving story, Lady And The Tramp feels more original than most.

Key features: Children's games, featurettes, sketches for unused scene concepts.

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