For the past few years, Disney has been taking another look at its old movies and spinning them into gold.
It’s a tricky terrain. One bad movie, and you can spoil decades of goodwill towards a movie. But “Mary Poppins Returns” — about the nanny helping the Banks children during a bereavement in 1930s London — is playing it smart.
It’s casting Meryl Streep.
Disney’s recent trend of updating their old movies started out with “Maleficent” in 2014, which updated 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” and made more than $750,000 at box office. Then came 2015’s “Cinderella” and this year’s “Jungle Book,” “Finding Dory,” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” In the future, we’re getting “Pete’s Dragon,” a “Beauty and the Beast” remake with Emma Watson, another “Maleficent” movie, a “Cruella” movie with the villain of “101 Dalmations,” a live-action “Dumbo” remake, and half-a-dozen “Star Wars” movies.
It’s nothing new. Intellectual property is the most valuable thing in the entertainment industry. Universal is even taking yet another look at its classic monsters — like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and, uh, The Wolf Man — for a new slate of movies. But with its princesses, Marvel superheroes, and “Star Wars,” Disney is king.
Some studios are tempted to make forgettable, possibly profitable remakes and updates just as a way of cashing into a brand. Look no further than 2014’s “Annie” remake, which had the wisdom to cast Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx, but then dashed its promise with incompetent production. And sometimes movies are so bad that they can set careers on hold — have you seen Aaron Eckhart in anything since 2014’s “I, Frankenstein”?
Disney is playing it smart. The apex of this decision is casting Meryl Streep in “Mary Poppins Returns.” Streep is the greatest actor alive, and casting her represents an investment in quality.
Disney wants more than to just get the butts of “Mary Poppins” fans into theatre seats. It wants people to love, watch, and buy “Mary Poppins Returns” for generations, just as they did with the original 1964 movie. By having people like Streep, Emily Blunt, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and director Rob Marshall on the movie, they can make that happen.
Things can go wrong, of course. “Alice Through the Looking Glass” was a flop. It indulged too much in the bad taste of director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp. But if Disney reins them in, like they have done with the Marvel movie directors, they can end up with something solidly entertaining.
For some time, Disney did go in the cheap cash-in route, with straight-to-DVD and Disney Channel movies like the “Aladdin” sequel “The Return of Jafar” and “The Lion King 1½.” They’re beloved in certain corners of Disney fandom, but they just don’t have the same acclaim as the originals.
By investing in real talent, Disney doesn’t just want to make a quick buck on a popular franchise, they want to make movies that families will enjoy for generations.
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