Lady and the Tramp was the fifth, count 'em, fifth film released by the Walt Disney Company in 2019 that was more or less a redo of one of their classic animated features done up in some ungainly combination of live-action videography and CGI, following Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and it's the one that was chosen to be part of the launch slate for the much-ballyhooed Disney+ streaming service rather than given a theatrical release. We could look at this two ways. One way would be to say that the company wanted to put a good foot forward with a simple, intimate story that would work well on the little screen, owing to its grounding in domestic spaces and straightforward emotions of romance, best-known for marrying these two things in a scene of two new lovers shyly eating spaghetti together. The correct way would be to say that Lady and the Tramp looked on paper like the film among this company that had the lowest commercial prospects, and surely the least vocal fanbase, and so it was safe to make a version that looks cheap and feels cheap and barely holds up on television, to say nothing of the merciless grandeur of a theater screen. Because who, ultimately, would give a shit.

This is not to say that Lady and the Tramp is the worst of these five films. I mean, it might be. I'd still rather watch this than The Lion King, at least, the film which it most closely resembles in its most critical flaw. Namely, both are films about talking animals, but they look like real animals, the kind that do not talk. And this leads to some trouble. In the case of The Lion King, the trouble was that the animals were brought to life with the most handsomely detailed, finely-rendered CGI of 2019, looking flawlessly like the corpses of big cats had been mounted on wires and stiffly wobbled around in grisly simulacra of song-and-dance numbers. Lady and the Tramp starts with actual dogs - actual rescue dogs, the filmmakers have proudly announced, presumably in the hope that rescuing a half-dozen dogs from an animal shelter morally counterbalances being culpable for this movie - and gives them CGI mouths and occasionally CGI eyes, so they can talk and have exaggerated reaction shots. To be honest, I don't know which one I hate more. Certainly, the dogs in Lady and the Tramp are abominations of the first order, with the seams between the mouths and the rest of the animals remaining just invisible enough that you have to stare to see them.

And stare you will. There is something abjectly horrifying about watching these dogs talk, with their CG jaws just slightly too fluid, too capable of creating round "Os" and the like. In an era of cinema that has managed to birth the horrors of both Cats and The Call of the Wild, Lady and the Tramp is still a highly competitive entry in the unfortunately robust field of "zombie pets from the Uncanny Valley" movies. It's bad enough that when the all-CGI cats show up (cats being less trainable than dogs, and therefore harder to put at the center of a musical number - not a grotesquely racist one, this time around, but it's tuneless and forgettable song), it's a profound relief, since at least they just look fake, and not wantonly perverse.

The film attached to this - hell, does it matter what film is attached to this? You couldn't write a good enough script to  make these visual effects "work", and screenwriters Andrew Bujalski (a microbudget filmmaking icon who has somehow been sucked into the Disney gravitational hole) and Kari Granlund have certainly not written a good script, anyway. It's beat for beat the same plot as the 1955 animated Lady and the Tramp, one of Disney's very finest motion pictures, only with the subplot about the beaver removed, probably to avoid showing zoos in a positive light, because this is a film that's strenuously eager to show that it has The Correct Opinions. Even when doing so means lying to children about much racial amity there was in Jim Crow-era Georgia. Which strikes me as a particularly insidious lie to tell, but what do I know.

The point being, there's a married human couple, Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons), and they've just adopted a Cocker Spaniel puppy they name Lady (Tessa Thompson). In this town, a rangy mutt known to one and all as the Tramp (Justin Theroux) has been staying one step ahead of a bizarrely insistent dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez), who treats his life's work with almost religious zeal. Lady and the Tramp, as you can guess right from the title, meet up; he's amused by her sheltered primness (very much amped up in this telling - one of the ways the writers have gently inflated by the plot by 30 minutes is by extending scenes of Lady being cluelessly over-privileged, in fact), she's appalled by his filthiness, they fall in love over spaghetti. They do not have puppies, because this version of the story has been completely stripped over every molecule of sex; yes, they've made a more sexless version of a 1950s Disney movie. At least in 1955, Peggy Lee got to sing "He's a Tramp", a song about how good of a lay the Tramp is. In 2019, the number was handed off to Janelle Monaé (one of only two actors worth a damn in the whole cast - the other is Sam Elliott as an aging bloodhound, which is such obvious casting that it almost doesn't count), who knows from singing dirty songs about sex, but unfortunately the lyrics have been sanded down, given clanging new rhymes, and made about how the Tramp has no friends.

The material is all the same, then, but dumber and with less personality. The worst of it is the human material: Jim Dear and Darling were generic talking legs in the 1955 film, the dogcatcher a ghost, and the only human we got to see well was hapless punching bag and dog hater Aunt Sarah (played now by Yvette Nicole Brown, still a hapless punching bag; indeed, the film openly hates this version of the character even more than the 1955 film did). Here, maybe in order to cut down on the cost of making the perverse monstrosities in the canine cast, the humans get a lot more screentime, and there is not one single word that comes out of any person's mouth that is anything less than completely wretched. They talk like malfunctioning androids. It's stiff and embarrassing and actively painful, and Mann and Clemons aren't remotely up to the task of redeeming it into something charming. The dogs, meanwhile, have the relative benefit of speaking in kiddie flick boilerplate; if Jim Dear and Darling feel like somebody was earnestly trying and badly failing to evoke what people in the 1920s talk like, at least Lady, the Tramp, and the rest all just feel like standard-issue quipping wiseasses.

Sometimes, this even works! Thompson and Theroux are both somewhat flavorless voice actors (he's worse than she is), but they can both spit out one-liners, and there are bits - entire scenes, even - that made me chuckle, mostly because they've committed. So as bad as the worst of Lady and the Tramp is, it's not unwatchable, merely joyless, lifeless, hideous, cheap, and it has a manic, sputtering sense of humor. But it's not unwatchable. By Disney live-action remake standards, that's practically respectable.