At first glance, this development appears to be the latest in a long string of announcements of Disney remounting many of its classic properties, including a live-action Jungle Book, a new Pete's Dragon, and a star-studded live-action Beauty and the Beast, among many, many more.
But despite appearances, this new iteration of Mary Poppins — to be overseen by Chicago and Into the Woods director Rob Marshall — doesn't fit that pattern. This Mary Poppins feature will be a new musical, with new songs and a new story, centered on the same character — who appeared in eight different books by Travers between 1934 and 1988 — but independent of the (practically perfect in every way) 1964 feature.
Because Disney (and, really, all of Hollywood) has put so much of its energy lately toward rejiggering its old properties, this new Mary Poppins is being confused by some for a reboot or a remake or a sequel, instead of what it actually is: the endangered Hollywood beast known as the Original Movie Musical (albeit one based on an existing character).
The online reaction to the (still very preliminary) Poppins news highlights the fact that we've gotten a little confused about how we talk about movies that are repurposing old content in new ways.
The words "reboot," "remake," and "reimagination" have become conflated and in many cases have taken on an inherently negative connotation. Since Hollywood doesn't show any signs of backing off on these types of film any time soon, it behooves moviegoers (and people who write about movies) to be clear on what these terms mean, how they should be applied, and why they're not inherently bad.
A reboot resets the continuity of an established film series
The introduction of the term "reboot" into the Hollywood lexicon in recent years has caused a lot of confusion and consternation, because it hews so closely to the idea of a film remake. And to be fair, there is a lot of conceptual crossover between the two terms, which both center on the idea of taking an old property and reconfiguring it. But the two are, at root, quite different.
The term reboot should be reserved for film properties that have extended beyond a single movie and have thus established a continuity that the subsequent reboot throws out in favor of a new status quo.
We see this most often in superhero films, like the recent big-screen redos of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Batman, and Superman. But it also applies to something like the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, which reset the long-running series to the beginning of Bond's tenure as 007, repositioning both the character and the plot to where neither was beholden to what happened in previous film entries.
There was indeed a 1967 Casino Royale, but despite sharing a title, two films are nothing alike: The former is a satire starring Peter Sellers as a retired Bond who is pressed back into service, while the latter is a straight-faced action flick starring Daniel Craig as a newly minted 007. The goal of the 2006 Casino Royale is to expunge the franchise of the plot and character baggage it had acquired over the years in order to reinvigorate it, not to bring the 1967 Casino Royale into the modern day.
Remakes closely re-create one particular film
In general, the simplest way to remember the difference between a reboot and a remake is to remember that for a film to be a reboot, it should be resetting a chronology that's been established over multiple films. A remake is concerned with updating a single film, sometimes slavishly.
In order to be considered a remake, a new film has to hew closely to the original in terms of plot, character, and format, with some allowances made to appeal to modern sensibilities (or, in the case of English-language remakes like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Let the Right One In, American sensibilities).
This is quite common in horror: In the past few years alone, we’ve seen faithful (often to a fault) remakes of horror classics like Poltergeist, Carrie, Fright Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left, and countless more. And there was a whole mini-boom of films in the early 2000s predicated on the practice of importing Japanese horror films to US theaters more or less intact, just in English.
But the prevailing cultural winds of nostalgia mean that no film genre is immune to the remake machine, from action and sci-fi (Robocop) to musicals (Annie). To further confuse the issue, there's also a small, strange subset of remakes that can be considered more cinematic experiments than nostalgia-fueled cash-grabs, like Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot color Psycho remake or Michael Haneke’s English remake of his own Funny Games.
"Reimaginings" are remakes with at least one big change
Most of Disney's upcoming slate of live-action remakes fall into a subsection of the remake category, the "reimagining." A reimagining is basically a remake, but with a fancy new hat: Something’s been added to or changed from the original film that alters it in a major way.
In Disney’s case, at least lately, that means appending the term "live-action" to any given successful animated film —like this year’s Cinderella, which also nixed the animated film’s musical element — or shifting the focus to a different character in the story, as with 2014's Maleficent.
But there are other high-profile reimaginings on the horizon as well, like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, which gender-swaps the 1984 comedy classic, or the recently announced Roadhouse reimagining that puts MMA star Ronda Rousey in the Patrick Swayze role.
Reimaginings are also nothing new in Hollywood. They’re a close cousin of the adaptation, which lifts content from one medium and applies it to another; the film reimagining is just adapting within the same medium. Sometimes, in fact, a film reimagining can happen with a slight detour into a different medium, as with the path Roger Corman’s 1960 film Little Shop Of Horrors traced from film to the Broadway stage, then back to film as a 1986 musical directed by Frank Oz.
Delayed sequels and prequels are something else entirely
When long-running franchises that span multiple films and filmmakers reappear after a hiatus, there’s a temptation to apply the term "reboot." But that’s not always the case.
The upcoming Star Wars films and spinoffs mark the transition of the franchise from George Lucas and Lucasfilm to J.J. Abrams and Disney, but despite the presence of an all-new cast, The Force Awakens is not a reboot, as some have termed it. Rather, it’s a sequel — appearing, somewhat confusingly, after Lucas’s trio of prequels (released between 1999 and 2005). There are more than 30 years and several generations of Star Wars fandom separating 2015's The Force Awakens from 1983's Return of the Jedi, but the new film takes place within the same chronology and is thus not a reboot, but a sequel.
Or consider the latest iteration of the Planet of the Apes franchise, which invited similar terminology confusion, in large part because the original series of the 1960s and 1970s had such a wonky chronology to begin with. But 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes place years and years before the events of the original film, portraying the events that led Earth to become the ape-ruled planet seen in the original film. This solidly positions the belated film as a prequel.
There’s a whiff of remake to Rise, which draws much of its concept from 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and a hint of reboot as well, since Rise established a new timeline for the events that eventually play out in the 1968 film. But at their most fundamental level, Rise, its follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the upcoming War of the Planet of the Apes are all prequels within the established Apes universe.
None of this matters if the films aren't any good
It's important to remember that, ultimately, terms like "reboot" and "reimagining" are all a part of the Hollywood pre-hype cycle, and ultimately don’t have any bearing on whether the resulting film is any good.
But, paradoxically, that’s also why it’s important to be aware of what these words really mean and how they should be applied. It’s far too easy in this day and age to write off films we haven’t seen yet, because we imagine them to be part of a crass, money-obsessed system that exploits moviegoers’ nostalgia by repurposing the same content over and over. (The term "gritty reboot" has become a catchall mockery of the idea that every beloved property must be dusted off and darkened up for modern audiences.)
Reboots, remakes, reimaginings, and sequels/prequels aren’t inherently bad, and don’t necessarily connote creative bankruptcy. The fact that they often are bad and creatively bankrupt means the terms themselves have become handy shorthand in the ongoing cultural discussion of Everything That’s Wrong With Hollywood.
But really, they’re just different categorizations of storytelling techniques that creators have been utilizing for as long as film has been a going concern. Art inspires art, and any story can be told from countless perspectives and angles. As people who care about and talk about art, we should consider things for what they are and what they're attempting to do.
The first step to doing that is getting our terminology straight; the second is to not let that terminology adversely affect our opinion of a piece of art before we've seen it. Any idea, no matter how much it seems to be creatively bankrupt, can make for a potentially good film.