Ranking the Disney Canon – 19: Lady and the Tramp

“What a dog!” – Peg

We continue to knock out better and better films as we take a look at Walt Disney’s 1955 feature, Lady and the Tramp. Conceived in pieces starting in 1939, Lady and the Tramp can be considered one of the earliest original stories to come out of a Disney Full Length Animated Feature. Though there are a few short stories that Disney loosely took ideas from, Lady and the Tramp mostly was wholly original ideas from the Walt Disney Studios Staff. It was also the first Animated Disney film to be presented in the 2.66:! aspect ratio, known at the time as Cinemascope.

The story begins with Lady being presented as a Christmas Gift from Jim Dear to his wife Darling. Lady lives a pampered life with her new family until they begin acting strange and ignoring her normal calls for attention. While discussing this issue with her neighbors, Jock and Trusty, a stray dog known as The Tramp passes by and alerts Lady that her owners are having a baby, and she will soon be kicked to the curb. Over the next 9 months, Lady witnesses herself continually being ignored, just as The Tramp had predicted. After the baby is born, the family heads out-of-town for a few days, leaving Lady and the new baby boy in the care of Aunt Sarah. Aunt Sarah’s cats begin tearing the house apart, causing Aunt Sarah to blame Lady and put her in a muzzle. Lady runs away and runs into the Tramp. The two of them share the day together, leading to a romantic night. Lady feels she still must return home, where unbeknownst to her, a small, unexpected menace is looming.

STRENGTHS

Romance is the name of the game in Lady and the Tramp. Lady and the Tramp is one of those romances you think about when you consider the classic Disney romances. The film is named after the two, after all, so it is the main attraction, and it is a great main attraction. Lots of care and attention was put into making sure this romance is a classic, and it starts from the very beginning of the film, before the two main characters even meet for the very first time.

One of the best things this film does for the romance is to build up who these characters are fantastically before the romance is even in the minds of the characters or the audience. By starting at Lady’s arrival within the “Darling” family, we truly get a sense of who Lady is and where she is coming from. We are given a status quo for her character, which in turn gives us a great sense of her character and a reason to care for her character throughout the rest of the film. It also gives us a great sense of why the arrival of the baby is so confusing and devastating to her. The film also takes the time to introduce us to Tramp’s life before he first passes by Lady’s house, giving us a clear look at his worldview. By not rushing into the romance and allowing time to introduce the characters, it improves the characters, the romance, the story, and the film as a whole.

Let’s focus on the two as individuals. Lady’s first. (IT’S PUNTASTIC!) Lady is wonderfully elegant, matching the environment that she has grown up in. She feels exactly like your pet, and that’s what makes her so easily lovable. She loves her pampered life, yet never comes off as lazy or arrogant. The pampered life is the only life she has ever known, and thus the film makes it extremely easy to understand why Lady is confused about the changes in her lifestyle. It also makes it easy to understand why she is able to get into so much trouble. I love the fact that Lady keeps her worldview throughout the film, even after her wonderful time with Tramp. Lady is a beautiful character, and a wonderful protagonist for the film. And this elegance keeps consistent throughout the film, even when the story presents her with the toughest of obstacles, which makes her an even more wonderful character. She is the perfect counterpart to Tramp.

And of course, Tramp is the perfect counterpart to Lady. What I like most about Tramp is that he’s not necessarily angry at the world in the same way that Mittens from Bolt was. Sure, he knows about the dangers of living with humans, but the way he lives his life is more about the fact that he likes living “footloose and collar-free” as he puts it. He is clever and streetwise, but like Lady, never angry or arrogant about the way he lives his life. Tramp is certainly up there among the best “rebels” in Disney history. And like most of these rebels, he comes around.

And so Lady and the Tramp create a wonderful romance together. But how does this happen once they are together? Well, as mentioned above, the fact that they are great counterparts to one another means that they are perfect for one another. We’ll see this idea again done even better as we get farther into the list, but one aspect of the opposites attract idea that Lady is the perfect person to change the Tramp. It is said throughout the film that Tramp is always moving on to the next girlfriend when he gets bored. What’s great about this is that it makes Lady seem important and it makes her his soul mate. All of Tramps other lovers are strays just like him, but Lady has this elegance that makes Tramp care and come back for her. Lady and Tramp feel made for each other. When one of the results is the famous candlelight dinner scene, you know you have a great romance on your hands.

The name of the game may be romance, but the film does other things great as well. Like another dog related feature that is fast approaching in the countdown, Lady and the Tramp does a fantastic job at making the dogs feel like dogs. Lady acts exactly like the pet that you own, and she has all of these subtle scenes that drive home this point. The same goes for the rest of the dogs in the movie, including Tramp, Jock, and Trusty. It may seem like small potatoes, but it actually does a ton to add to the believability of the story. One of my personal favorite things that the fact that Jim Dear and Darling’s faces are barely shown at all, and that most of the time we only see their legs. It truly is a brilliant touch.

At this point, I should point out that Jim Dear and Darling are wonderful in this movie. Their voices are spot on, their script is amazing, and their role adds so much to the film. I love them as characters. They could have easily been throw away characters who were just means to an end, but they end up becoming a favorite part of the film for me.

Finally, let’s look at the villains. Aunt Sarah, her cats, and the rat all work great for the story. The “slice of real life” aspect of this story doesn’t allow for much wiggle room in the villain department, but these four characters work as antagonists. Aunt Sarah and her Cats fall into that “Love to Hate” category, and the rat from the film’s climax is brilliantly sinister and the realistic portrayal of it really adds tension to the final moments.

WEAKNESSES

I told you, this section will continually and continually get smaller! There’s not a ton wrong with all of the upcoming films (They are Top 20 material, after all). These weaknesses are all nitpicks in comparison to the film breaking weaknesses earlier films had on this list. Anyways, let’s get to a short weaknesses section.

There is a small glitch in quality right after one of the film’s highlights, the dinner sequence I mentioned earlier. The wake-up, the chicken chase, the pound, and the return of Lady to her home all are great in comparison to the classic quality of the rest of the film. The Pound sequence is one I’ve always had an issue with. The scene really needed to be Lady realizing Tramp’s life with women, and being embarrassed by the fact that a dog like herself ended up in the pound. And it does accomplish that in a sense. But it needed to be stronger. It needed to be more heartbreaking, more embarrassing. As it is, it is great, but still one of the film’s weaker sequences.

I also feel like the Soundtrack is great, but not classic. I don’t deny that “The Siamese Cat Song” and “He’s a Tramp” are great songs, but I don’t know if they are as strong as the songs from films around it. Truly, only “Bella Notte” is a song that makes me go “Wow” whenever I see it or listen to it. The other two songs just don’t fall into the category of songs I want to listen to over and over again. It is a great Disney soundtrack, no doubt, but it falls just short of classic. You might say I feel this soundtrack is a bit overrated. But that’s just me. But this is my list after all.

There’s also a sense that I wanted a bit more from the ending. I wanted to see Tramp make the decision to stay with the family as well as Jim Dear and Darling accepting him into the family. It really would have been the icing on the cake for a great character arc. I also wanted to see that moment where Lady has puppies to parallel the baby storyline from the beginning of the film. It still is a great ending to a classic film, but it really could have been more.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

(Told you the Weaknesses were few and far between!)

For the first time in the countdown, the best scene and best song are one and the same! Both the Best Scene and Best Song come in the famous Dinner sequence, with the famous spaghetti kiss. “Bella Notte” adds a great Love song to one of the all time great Disney Romance Scenes.

CLOSING COMMENTS

In the end, Lady and the Tramp is a classic. Sure, it has some small issues that at this point are just enough to knock it down the ladder, but it remains a classic of animation and one of the greatest romances in the history of Disney. The two leads really do a lot to make it a memorable work of art, and it has an iconic moment that is as recognizable as any other moment in Disney history. And even if this isn’t the best dog themed film in Disney history (We’re not out of the doghouse just yet!) It is still one of the classics, and it stands at 19.

Ranking the Disney Canon – 20: Tarzan

“I was saved! I was saved by a flying wild man in a loincloth.” – Jane Porter

Tarzan is the film that rounded out the 1990s era of Disney Animation. For the studio, it was the last film that would be considered a “classic Disney Animated Musical” until The Princess and The Frog’s release in 2009. Tarzan is also noted for creating the “Deep Canvas” technique, which allowed animators to create Computer Generated backgrounds that looked similar to traditionally painted images. This would allow animators to create different camera techniques, much like the Multiplane Camera that Walt Disney created in the 1930s did for his animated shorts and features. The Deep Canvas technique would eventually merit an honorary Academy Award.

Tarzan begins as our main hero is taken in a mother Gorilla, after Sabor, a leopard, kills his shipwrecked mother and father. Kala, whose own baby was taken by Sabor about the same time, convinces her husband to allow Tarzan to live with the Gorillas. Tarzan has a hard time fitting in with his new brethren, but quickly learns to be a Gorilla and becomes accepted into the society, eventually proving himself worthy by killing Sabor. Soon, he meets a crew of explorers in the jungle looking for Gorillas. This includes the lovely Jane Porter, the first of the people who Tarzan meets and the one that interests him the most. Jane, along with her father Archimedes and their protector Clayton, teach Tarzan about human life. Clayton, however, is planning betrayal, and Tarzan soon must save his family and his new friends.

STRENGTHS

One thing that always sticks out to me about Tarzan is the action sequences. The escape from the treehouse, Tarzan vs Sabor, and the climatic battle are all extremely well done. They always take themselves seriously, never feeling over the top with humor, and the small bits of humor there are in these sequences don’t feel completely out-of-place. This leaves them with the intense nature that the best Disney battles have. I especially like the Tarzan vs. Sabor sequence. It’s a great moment for the character of Tarzan.

Tarzan himself has a great arc that follows his rise, fall, and redemption within the Gorillas community. What I especially like about how the movie build’s Tarzan’s character is that there are two distinct parts to his story that form to create one fantastic one. The beginning builds Tarzan’s rise with the apes(Not Rise of the Planet of the Apes, because that is a different story altogether), and the second half builds Tarzan’s realization of his true identity and his struggle to figure out which one he is truly part of. Both of these stories are necessary to tell, and it can be very hard to pull them off without having one or the other feel a bit shallow or let down. However, Tarzan manages to make both sides of the story feel satisfactory. It truly feels like a life story is being told.

Tarzan’s story also works well because we actually care for the relationship between Tarzan and the Gorillas. What’s great about this is that this viewing is not limited to Tarzan’s adulthood. Yes, we get the relationship very well in Tarzan’s adulthood, and there are very heartbreaking moments, but it shines in Tarzan’s childhood. We see WHY he is so caring for is family. This is a great example of why showing is always better than telling. By effectively building the relationship between Tarzan and his mother, and even the antagonistic one between Tarzan and his father, the decisions and feelings he makes in his adulthood make sense, and we care for them.

Jane and Tarzan’s relationship is also a classic. Jane is wonderfully voiced by Minnie Driver, who adds a wonderful warmth to the role. The meeting between Jane and Tarzan on the tree is one of the all time classic Disney romance scenes, and has some great writing in it. Jane’s fascination with Tarzan is wonderful and presented correctly. The same thing goes for Tarzan’s fascination with the human world and Jane herself. In this relationship, Tarzan is smart yet naive, but never looks dumb. This is another film where the relationship makes or breaks the film, and thankfully, this one very much makes it. But really, shouldn’t you expect that from a film this highly ranked?

Clayton is effective villain, and great for the story. He is charismatic, undoubtedly evil, and still has great moments with the rest of the cast. His turn is always believable to the audience, and he never feels like a character who turned just because the film needed a villain. He is memorable as a character, and like many great Disney villains, has a memorable final battle and death.

Finally, the soundtrack. Of Phil Collin’s two Disney soundtracks, this is by far his finer one. To me, all the songs on the soundtrack are great, and not one of them really falters. What makes the soundtrack great, though, are the images that go along with the songs. If the images were not memorable, then the songs being sung by Phil Collins would not work. However, the images are even more memorable than the songs, and are what really make the song sequences in this film memorable. Normally, I prefer characters singing over montage singing, but the sequences in Tarzan really work well with Montages, and the story is able to quickly pace along because of the use of montages. And again, all the montages are memorable.

(Also, outside of one little glitch, Tarzan does a much better job at presenting the communication factor than Pocahontas did. Proof it can be done!)

WEAKNESSES

We are at the point in this countdown where the films to follow lack true, film breaking weaknesses. Sure, I’ll list some things that annoy me, but just know that this section will continue to dwindle down and down until eventually there are no weaknesses to list! The strength of the canon everybody!

Tarzan does have a few issues though. Side characters being one of them. Though Tantor the Elephant is memorable and has a great performance by Wayne Knight (Newman!), Terk, Tarzan’s best friend, frequently falls into the “celebrity voice acting category we fell into so long ago with Home on the Range. Terk never feels like her own character or even as a necessary part of the movie. She doesn’t do anything that any of the other Gorilla friends or children could have done. Her only real moment is the “Trashing the Camp” number, which is fun but a bit weaker compared to the rest.

I also wanted it bit more from Jane’s father. He is such a fun character, and he had so much potential to steal so many scenes, but he just isn’t featured enough. Personally, I’d have like to see him more than we saw Terk.

I know that I just put the soundtrack in the strength section, I do have a few issues with it. The songs are great sure, but if you had someone who has never seen the movie listen to the songs, they wouldn’t know they are from a movie. It’s not a game breaker, but it has always bothered me. They are Disney songs that don’t feel like Disney songs.They fun to listen to, but I think that what doesn’t allow me to move this movie to the next level. Also, if you are not a fan of Phil Collins (like Matt Stone and Trey Parker), it can really take you out of the movie.

Finally, While I like Clayton, I never find it believable that Jane and her Father trust Clayton. The film presents him as too seedy and suspicious from the moment he is introduced. I can’t understand why Jane and the professor would hire him. The film needed to keep him a bit understated for a while. It would have gone a long way.

(And that minor glitch in the communication is that Tarzan says his own name first even though he was given that name in Gorilla. But the film does the rest of it so well that I can let it slide more than I should.)

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

The best moment of the film was close between many scenes, but it goes to the Tarzan’s rescue of Jane and their subsequent first meeting. Wonderful character building here, and it is a wildly fun sequence.

The best song goes to “Son of Man”, and a lot of it is because of the montage that accompanies the song. Wonderful fitting the images with the song. The song is good too, though.

CLOSING COMMENTS

As the end of an era, Tarzan certainly fits. And as the beginning of our Top 20, it fits too. Tarzan is a fantastic film with great characters, a great script, great moments and great action. And what does that say about what is to come as we approach the end of the list? I hope you stick around for the rest of the ride however long it is may take (and hopefully not too much longer.) Now the fun begins.