What a difference a week makes.

It seems like since last Thursday the world has turned completely upside down. And for good reason.

The United States is finally taking the threat of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) seriously.

While the disease does have a blessedly high survivability rate, the number of people likely to get sick in the coming weeks and months are certain to overwhelm hospitals and treatment centers unless drastic actions are taken.

Which is why doctors and medical professionals across the country have been universally recommending people stay home if possible and especially to avoid large gatherings.

The less chances this virus has to spread, the better we’ll get through this. Especially those of us who are far more at risk, like people over 60 or those with serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease. 

For me, that means my weekly trips to the movie theater are out.

So to anyone who may have been looking forward to my reviews of this past week’s new releases, “I Still Believe,” “The Hunt,” or “Bloodshot,” I’m sorry, but it doesn’t seem like I’ll be able to head up to the theater anytime soon.

Not that there will be many new films anyway, as every single wide release scheduled for the coming weeks has been postponed.

Plus, with numerous theaters shutting down their locations until further notice, including the Moore Warren Theater where I watch most new movies, even if I did review those films you probably wouldn’t be able to find any place to watch them at.

So for the foreseeable future, in the spirit of isolating yourself and avoiding all possible human contact, I will be reviewing movies you can stream and watch in the comfort of your own home.

One interesting development in the midst of all this uncertainty is Universal Pictures. On Monday, the studio announced they would be making their current theatrical releases available at home for a suggested retail price of $19.99 for a 48-hour rental period.

This includes current releases like “The Hunt,” which I mentioned previously, plus “The Invisible Man,” as well as “Emma,” both of which I’ve recommended in the past. All three films will become available for rent this Friday.

Not only that, but it seems future movies from Universal will be receiving the same treatment, with DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls World Tour” releasing for home viewing Friday, April 10. The same day it would release in theaters.

This is a monumental shift for a major Hollywood studio. Same day home rentals for theatrical releases are something I’ve seen a sizable portion of moviegoers asking about for years. Especially those with large families, where going to the theater can end up costing an arm and a leg.

In the past, all the major movie theater chains have strongly resisted such a business model, as it would likely cut heavily into their bottomline. But with theaters closed for who knows how long, they seem to have lost their leverage.

Will this be the start of a new trend for Hollywood? Only time will tell.

In the meantime though, I still managed to scrounge up a couple movies to talk about this week. Sure, they both may have been released months ago on Disney’s streaming service Disney+, but they were new to me.

One is a live action remake of a Disney classic starring a pair of starcrossed canine lovers, the other a film based on the true story of a dog sled relay across Alaska to deliver desperately needed medicine.

Let’s get to the reviews.

***

Lady and the Tramp

First up is “Lady and the Tramp.”

In this live action retelling of the 1955 Disney animated classic, an upper-class American cocker spaniel named Lady (Tessa Thompson) and a street-smart, stray schnauzer called Tramp (Justin Theroux) embark on an unexpected adventure and, despite their differences, grow closer and come to understand the value of home.

Like all of these live action remakes of animated Disney classics, it’s impossible to talk about this film without of course frequently comparing it to the original.

As readers of my column probably already know, like many, I am a huge fan of Disney movies.

Growing up, I watched and rewatched these movies over and over again. Their songs were the soundtrack of my childhood. And to this day, Disney’s films are still some of my favorite movies of all time.

That said, “Lady and the Tramp” was never really a favorite of mine.

As a kid, I think the mushy romantic stuff put me off a little, not to mention the slightly slower pace of a 1950s film.

As an adult, while I’m far more accepting of love stories and movies which take their time, I’ve also grown up in a world far more aware of other peoples and cultures, and how harmful some stereotypes can be.

And boy oh boy does 1955’s “Lady and the Tramp” like its racial stereotypes. The most memorable of which is definitely Aunt Sarah’s Siamese cats, both of which feature bucked teeth, slanted eyes, and purposefully choppy English.

Fortunately the 2019 remake does away with most of these harmful caricatures. So much so, it arguably goes a bit too far in the opposite direction.

But I’m not going to complain. If Disney wants Lady’s owners to be an affluent mixed-race couple happily living together in the south at the turn of the 20th century, more power to them. 

Even if it does seem like they are overcompensating a little, I’ll definitely take an overly idyllic setting over the casual racism.

There are a few other notable changes of course. Lady’s Scottish Terrier friend Jock is now female instead of male for representation reasons I guess.

The story itself largely remains the same, though this modern telling does feel a bit more focused than the original.

While Lady is still incredibly sheltered, she does seem noticeably more capable here. She isn’t just a damsel to be saved from her tumultuous family life. And thank goodness they don’t have a scene where her two best friends offer to rescue her through marriage like the 1955 film did. That was weird.

This gives the Tramp a bit more of a character arc as well. He isn’t just a suave street dog caught up in Lady’s family troubles. He has some issues of his own, especially involving trusting others.

Is it a particularly deep character flaw? Well no. But it’s more than he had to work with before.

Performance wise, I thought the acting was solid for the most part.

If I had a complaint, it’d be that voice of Lady, Tessa Thompson, and the actress who portrayed Darling, Kiersey Clemons, lacked conviction at times. They were mostly fine though.

Sadly, the most disappointing aspect of this film just so happens to be the single most iconic scene in the original “Lady and the Tramp.” Tony’s famous rendition of “Bella Notte,” sung during Lady and Tramp’s romantic moonlit dinner.

The 2019 film spends so much repeatedly reminding the audience how ridiculous it must look for two dogs to be sitting at a candlelit table, eating spaghetti and meatballs while two grown men play instruments and sing to them.

Instead of romantic, they just make it awkward. I get it. It would be very strange to see such a sight in real life. But that’s no reason to point it out to the audience multiple times. It ruins the magic of the moment.

I suppose the one thing I haven’t discussed, and the thing that may bother some people the most, is how the talking dogs look.

I’ll admit, at first the computer generated faces of the dogs definitely threw me off a bit. It was also a little jarring to hear Tessa Thompson’s voice come out of the mouth of a cocker spaniel.

But honestly, as the film went on, it just didn’t bother me after awhile.

It’s not like the animals were fully computer animated like they were in the recent “Lion King” remake. As far as I can tell, it’s mostly just the faces that are fake.

And even then, it’s some of the most seamless and believable animal facial animation I’ve ever seen. Plus the dogs’ faces here aren’t nearly as stoic and emotionless like most of the wildlife in “The Lion King.”

Overall, while this movie definitely does lack some of the magic that made the original film so memorable, it definitely improves in other areas, making the 2019 version much more palatable to modern audiences.

Is it a great movie? Well, no. But I don’t necessarily hold the original in high esteem either.

As far as Disney live action remakes go, I’d say this is one of the better ones. It won’t blow your socks off, but if you’re looking to kill a couple hours during your weeks of COVID-19 isolation, you can certainly find worse entertainment.

“Lady and the Tramp” is rated PG.

***

Togo

The other film this week is “Togo.”

This movie tells the true story of Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe), and his lead sled dog, Togo, as they, and other heroic dog-sled teams, battle through harsh conditions during the winter of 1925 to save the Alaskan town of Nome in the midst of an epidemic.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably at least heard bits and pieces of this tale before.

The real life story received tons of press coverage at the time, including through the newly popularized medium of radio.

And why not? It’s an incredible tale of perseverance. Man and man’s best friend battling through the elements as they race to deliver precious diphtheria antitoxin to save a city’s dying children.

You may know this as the story of Balto.

Growing up, the only version of this tale I had heard was the 1995 animated film by Simon Wells, where Balto the wolfdog, voiced by Kevin Bacon, single handedly ensures life saving serum makes it safely to the children of Nome.

But beyond the general premise, and the fact that one of the sled dogs was named Balto, the 1995 movie is entirely made up.

The animated film does reflect a kernel of truth though, because in real life Balto also was given the lion’s share of the credit. Balto even had a statue erected in his honor, which remains in New York Central Park to this day.

Yet there were a number of sled teams and around 150 sled dogs involved in this treacherous relay across Alaska. Why did Balto get all the credit? Well, it’s because he was one of the lead dogs on the last leg of the journey. That’s it.

Because of this, Balto became a superstar, and the remaining sled dogs and mushers were forgotten by history. That is, until more recently.

Enter this film, “Togo.”

As you may have guessed, this film focuses more on Togo and his musher, Leonhard Seppala, and their part of this incredible journey.

Considering Togo was actually the dog who covered the longest and most arduous stretch of the run, around 260 miles compared to Balto’s 55 miles, it makes a lot more sense to feature Togo and his musher in this story, instead of the dog who led the tail end of the trip.

And to that end, this movie does a wonderful job.

“Togo” is a very simple film, yet it’s certainly one that manages to shine throughout.

You can’t help but love Willem Dafoe here. The man has been absolutely killing on screen lately, and this movie definitely continues this trend.

He always brings such an unrivaled passion to his roles. There’s one scene in this film, where he and sled dogs are crossing a frozen inlet of the Bering Sea called the Norton Sound.

And with haunting sounds of ice shifting and cracking around them, what does the man do? Why he delivers an inspirational speech, making him and his dogs sound like heroes of a grand epic.

It’s one of those moments that makes my eyes instantly well up with tears, and causes every hair on my body to stand on end. With a speech like that I’d gladly follow Dafoe through hell and back without a second’s hesitation.

The dogs here also manage to deliver downright excellent performances.

As far as I can tell, there’s no computer animated trickery involved in the canines’ acting. It’s all just good old fashioned training. You couldn’t ask for better performances from dogs.

As for the narrative, the story itself is fairly straightforward.

As Togo and Leonhard make their heroic trek across Alaska, the film periodically flashes back to Togo as a young pup. A very spirited young dog who absolutely refused to let anything get in the way of Leonhard and his sled, despite all of Leonhard’s misgivings.

These early days are juxtaposed to Togo and Leonhard’s perilous journey across the frozen landscape, one that could easily lead to both of their deaths as they’re pushed to the brink of survival.

Despite its simplicity, this movie is often very intense, especially since it’s far more realistic than other recent dog films, including other movies featuring sled dogs like “The Call of the Wild.”

I wouldn’t have guessed that Disney of all studios would be the one to produce the more grounded sled dog flick, yet here we are. Go figure.

All in all, “Togo” is a very easy film to recommend. As a story, it stays remarkably true to life, and as a film it remains captivating, from the first scene to the last.

If you have Disney+ and you haven’t watched “Togo,” do yourself a favor and check it out. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

“Togo” is rated PG.

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