Lady and the Tramp (U) ***
Four Kids and It (PG) **
System Crasher (15) ***
Disney has made a mint in recent years with live-action reboots (or in the case of The Lion King, photo-real reboots) of its classic animation back catalogue. It’s not really surprising, then, that its first dedicated release for new streaming channel Disney+ should follow suit. Lady and the Tramp sees the fondly remembered doggie romcom modernised for younger kids weaned on new versions of the likes of Dumbo and The Jungle Book, although this particular update – which was never intended for cinemas – has none of the epic scale of those films. Resembling instead the straight-to-video sequels and TV movies that Disney used to make all the time, it actually benefits from its lower-key approach, providing gentle afternoon family viewing that taps into the original’s enduring appeal (the spaghetti-slurping doggie date still features) without recycling the questionable ethnic caricatures that can make screening the 1955 animated version (which is also on Disney+) a more complicated proposition.
Retaining the early-1900s American period setting, albeit with a welcome deployment of colour-blind casting that’s smartly never commented upon, the film sticks fairly rigidly to the original’s beloved story. As with that version, it begins at Christmas, with the human protagonists Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) and his well-to-do wife Darling (Kiersey Clemons) getting a cocker spaniel named Lady. Voiced by Thor Ragnarok star Tessa Thompson, Lady quickly becomes the centre of their household, but she’s soon replaced in her owners’ priorities when they have a baby. Lady’s well-loved neighbourhood pooch pals Trusty (a Sam Elliott-voiced bloodhound) and Jock (a pampered Scottie dog charmingly voiced by Ashley Jensen) can’t soothe her sudden anxiety and she ends up on the streets, where she bonds with Tramp (Justin Theroux), a stray mutt from the wrong side of the tracks whose biggest fear is being locked up in the pound.
Though not as beautiful to watch as the original – which pioneered the use of widescreen animation – the combination of adorable real-life dogs with CG augmented facial expressions is a fairly winning one and the script, which was co-written by indie stalwart and mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess, Respect the Girls), has a few gags that enliven director Charlie Bean’s straightforward handling of the material. It’s no classic, but it’s easy viewing for families that might be starting to tear their hair out.
A family tearing their hair out is actually at the centre of this week’s other big new release. In Four Kids and It, a pair of British siblings (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Billy Jenkins) and a pair of American siblings (Ashley Aufderheide and Ellie-Mae Siam) are forced into a lockdown-style situation as their respective guardians – mild-mannered British dad David (Matthew Goode) and high-flying US divorcee Alice (Paula Patton) – take them to a remote, wifi-free, coastal cottage in Cornwall to inform them they’re actually dating. Terrible parenting choice duly established, the kids fight and scream as the implications of their new reality dawn on them. But when they happen upon a sand-dwelling magical creature known as a Psammead (Michael Caine), who has the power to grant them one wish per day, they soon start to bond.
Of course there’s a catch here: each wish lasts only until sunset, something that sets the bookish Ros (Malleson-Allen) on a potentially catastrophic quest to figure out how to make these wishes permanent. If all this sounds vaguely familiar that’s because the film is based on a best-selling children’s novel by Jacqueline Wilson that was itself based on Edith Nesbit’s out-of-copyright 1902 tale Five Children and It, a book that has already been the source for the 2004 family film of the same name starring Eddie Izzard as It. The new film pays tribute to Nesbit’s original text with a cheeky reference in the opening scene and a time-travel twist midway through, but it’s fairly charmless stuff, not helped by a wooden cameo from X-Factor judge Cheryl, a phoning-it-in vocal turn from Caine and a tedious moustache-twirling performance from Russell Brand, here playing a villainous toff with more innuendos than a Carry On… film. Whether any of the kids can act, meanwhile, is a question this particular film isn’t well placed to answer.
Finally this week, a brilliant performance by the child at the centre of German drama System Crasher saves this otherwise frantic and spuriously plotted film about the limits of the care system.
Eleven-year-old Helena Zengel (who was nine when she made it) is incredibly assured as the tomboyish Benni, a violently out-of-control child lashing out at everyone who gets in her way as she’s bounced around foster homes waiting for her mother to get her act together. In synch with Benni, the film is edited together at a furious pace, with frequent flash-cuts to some traumatic incident from her past adding to a general feeling of discombobulation that seems designed to mirror Benni’s broken psyche. But while writer/director Nora Fingscheidt should be commended for not stacking the decks in her protagonist’s favour here – if this was a Ken Loach film, all Benni’s caseworkers would be heartless middle-class monsters – her decision to zero in on Benni’s burgeoning relationship with Micha (Albrecht Schuch), a young social worker with a self-confessed saviour complex, stretches credulity as he takes her on intimate camping trips and invites him into her home without raising any institutional red flags.
Lady and the Tramp is available on Disney+, Four Kids and It is available on Sky Cinema, System Crasher is available on Curzon Home Cinema and MUBI