New Orleans is a weird presence in Disney's remake of The Lady and the Tramp

November 21, 2019

While many of you were watching and re-watching the latest installment of Baby Yoda and the Masked Mystery Man on Disney+, my five-year-old was insisting we watch The Lady and the Tramp live-action remake. Over the course of the movie, I had a gradually growing sense that something about this new movie was odd, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

That feeling persisted until the two dogs watched a jazz band from the roof of a Mississippi river boat that very clearly was not on the Mississippi River, a moment when everything became clear.

See, Disney set this remake of Lady and the Tramp in early 1900s New Orleans and shot the movie in Savannah, Georgia. That riverboat scene was probably shot on the Savannah River. The Darlings live in an ornate Southern home that I guess is supposed to be in the Garden District but doesn’t have the same spacing and details of Garden District homes. If they were set on shooting in Savannah for the tax breaks or whatever, why not set it in Savannah?

I think the filmmakers set it in New Orleans in small part because over the long-term Disney might be able to make marketing tie-ins to its other intellectual property set in New Orleans, such as The Princess and the Frog (more on that later) and New Orleans Square in its theme parks. But the bigger reason they set it in New Orleans — and not Midwestern Main Street, U.S.A., like the 1955 animated film — is because they wanted to advance a certain vision of racial diversity and harmony that exists in a specific strain of New Orleans mythology and did not want to wrestle with the city as it actually was and is.

To answer an obvious question, I have been to New Orleans exactly once, in 2013, for less than a week. It was a family vacation during which we ate incredible food, walked a whole bunch of places, went on a Pearl River tour, and each of us left the city longing to return. We also saw only a tiny slice of what life is like in New Orleans and Metairie, where we stayed, so this is coming from an outsider whose limited experience there was happy and carefree.

But probably because New Orleans was the most important city in North America for a long time, given its location at the mouth of the Mississippi made it The Crossroads of America where East, West, North and South interacted, there’s a wealth of scholarship on its cultural history and how it came to be the city it is today that simply doesn’t exist for just about any other American city its size. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re an American and don’t take at least a passing interest in New Orleans. Moreover, especially post-Katrina, I believe New Orleans has become a potent symbol for people who want to make a point about the United States’ essential racism, or lack of it, and The Lady and the Tramp remake falls into this tradition.

First, the cast: Jim Dear and Darling are an interracial couple, played by a white man and a black woman. Aunt Sarah is played by a black woman. The dog catcher is played by a Latino man. The railyard boss is played by a black man, and he oversees a group of workers who appear to be of many different races and ethnicities. The doctor who delivers the baby is played by a Korean man. There’s a party where white men and black men clink their glasses and drink with each other. And then there are the dogs: Lady is played by a multiracial black woman and the Tramp is played by a white man.

None of this is commented upon in the film, not even obliquely. It just is. Polygon’s review of the movie (appropriately titled, “The live-action Lady and the Tramp feels like a theme-park version of real life”) describes this weirdness well, saying, “Lady and the Tramp also asks the audience to suspend its disbelief enough to accept talking dogs. Why not pretend away racism as well? 2019’s Lady and the Tramp fits right in with Disney’s sanitized version of the past, where big, difficult-to-tackle issues like racism don’t exist, but issues like misogyny and classism can be packaged into safe, family-friendly conflicts.”

What’s fascinating about that choice, though, is that we’re just 10 years removed from the last time Disney produced a major motion picture set in and around New Orleans, and at that time Disney got a barrage of both praise and criticism for how it handled The Princess and the Frog. The praise was primarily for taking the long-overdue step of centering a black girl in one of their princess fantasies, while the criticism mainly focused on Disney’s seeming inability, or unwillingness, to embrace the full implications of Tiana’s blackness and integrate it into the movie.

As quoted in The Undefeated, one scholar summed up those feelings thusly, “Disney’s attempt to render blackness visible and human must be read against its objective of maintaining whiteness in the movie. Food and jazz share the burden of serving as metaphors for colorblindness and black humanity, leaving the audience with a feeling of accomplishment that they have moved beyond race in their acceptance of Tiana as a princess.”

Other critics contended that The Princess and the Frog amounted to an irresponsible recasting of history by not emphasizing enough the racially-based injustices of the Jazz Age. I wouldn’t go quite that far — I think The Princess and the Frog makes it abundantly clear that Big Daddy and Charlotte are ignorant of their obscene wealth and the poverty Tiana’s family endures. I also think the movie wrongheadedly places the burden on Tiana to overcome those conditions by working herself to the bone, rather than critiquing the larger economic and social structures that keep her in poverty. She’s “Almost There” only because she traded her entire childhood and adolescence for a shot to open a slim-margins business in a cutthroat industry right before the Great Depression is about to hit.

But when it comes to The Lady and the Tramp, that sort of conversation is beside the point because it’s attempting to tap into an idea of New Orleans as cosmopolitan melting pot where racial dividing lines are more blurred than elsewhere, and portrays Disneyland’s New Orleans Square (as shot in Savannah) to get us there. This story didn’t have to be set in New Orleans; there’s nothing inherently New Orleans-y about it. In fact, there’s nothing particularly 1909 about the story, either. Disney updated 101 Dalmatians to modern-day London. If they had to shoot in Georgia, there’s little reason it couldn’t have been set in, say, present-day Athens, a college town with a long-thriving arts scene. Make Jim Dear and Darling University of Georgia adjuncts or something. You could keep all the same actors and save a ton of money on period details.

Instead of being a fun little doggie romcom featuring a unique family that shines in its specificity, The Lady and the Tramp feels like the movie equivalent of the white dad in Get Out who keeps implicitly asking for congratulations that he voted for Obama twice even though nobody’s brought up presidential politics. All because somewhere along the line, the production committed to making a period piece set in New Orleans while the powers that be decided it wouldn’t be worth it to wrestle with the New Orleans that actually existed and exists.

(Photo: "Chippewa Square, Savannah, Georgia" by Ken Lund | cc-licensed CC BY-SA 2.0)