LOS ANGELES — In 1957, millions of people plunked down 62 cents each to see “Old Yeller,” a simple, sentimental Disney movie about a boy and his doggone dog in post-Civil War Texas.
The well-reviewed film — “a nice, trim little family picture,” as The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it — was such a smash hit that Disney booked a return engagement a few years later. Once again, “Old Yeller” brought out the masses.
Now try to imagine “Old Yeller” on a theater marquee today.
Most likely, it wouldn’t even get made. Too PG-rated. No superheroes. Limited overseas box-office potential.
Art films aren’t the only ones having a hard time getting noticed in theaters these days. Nice, trim little family pictures can’t make the multiplex economics work either. Disney pulled the plug on the genre a few years ago, citing the soaring cost of marketing theatrical releases, the collapse of the DVD market (which used to provide a safety net) and competition from living room video-on-demand services. Instead, Disney retrenched to focus exclusively on effects-driven megamovies that jackhammer people away from their Facebook and Fortnite accounts.
“We’re really proud of those smaller films we were making — “Queen of Katwe,” “McFarland, USA” — but we couldn’t get them to work as a business,” Sean Bailey, the president of production for Disney’s flagship movie division, said rather glumly. “Theaters were no longer a hospitable home for them.”
But never fear: The streaming era is here. Like a factory restarting an abandoned assembly line now that boom times have returned, Disney is reviving its smaller-scale movie operation to make content for Disney Plus, the company’s Netflix-style streaming service that blasts off on Tuesday.
Once again, Disney will make inspirational sports dramas, gentle teen romances, live-action animal adventure films and slapstick comedies — original-to-screen stories in the spirit of beloved Disney movies like “Remember the Titans” (2000), “The North Avenue Irregulars” (1979), and, yes, “Old Yeller.”
“Togo,” for instance, arrives on Disney Plus next month. Set in Alaska in 1925 and based on a true story, the $40 million film stars Willem Dafoe as a cranky musher. His top dog, Togo, once an unwanted runt, must summon the strength — in his twilight years — to do the impossible: lead a team of sled dogs through a blizzard and across a treacherous frozen lake so that medicine can be fetched for dying children back home. He’s the only hope.
“Got one more in you, pup?” Dafoe’s frontiersman asks, unsure himself of the answer.
Filmed in the Canadian Rockies, “Togo” is an edge-of-your-seat adventure — the cracking ice! the approaching cliff! — with a puddle-of-tears ending. At a one test screening, even a macho security guard patrolling the theater for digital pirates was weeping. (I flat-out bawled.)
“It’s not just a push-the-buttons dog movie,” Bailey said, the verve returning to his voice. “It’s an epic adventure that is wildly cinematic.”
Disney Plus will serve up 10 new films during its first year. Budgets range between $20 million and $60 million.
Grace VanderWaal, a 15-year-old known for winning the “America’s Got Talent” televised talent show (trusty ukulele in tow), will make her acting debut in “Stargirl,” a bespoke little musical about being yourself and the thrill of young love. It has an indie vibe — something on the sunnier end of the Sundance Film Festival, perhaps, with a hat tip to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” an Independent Spirit Award winner in 2013.
“The whole be-yourself thing can start to feel very narrow and preachy,” said Julia Hart (“Fast Color”), who directed “Stargirl.” “I wanted to make something for young people that felt authentic.”
And then there is “Flora and Ulysses,” which focuses on a cynical girl and a squirrel who develops superpowers after getting caught in a vacuum cleaner. The fast-rising filmmaker Lena Khan (“The Tiger Hunter”) is directing this comedic romp, adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book, which won the John Newbery Medal in 2014.
“Stargirl” and “Flora and Ulysses” will arrive on Disney Plus in the coming months. “Noelle” will be available on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen holiday films perform really well with our competitors,” said Ricky Strauss, the president of content and marketing for Disney Plus. (Last December, “The Christmas Chronicles” was a colossal hit for Netflix, generating 20 million streams in its first week.)
Some of the new films coming to Disney Plus are remakes. Also on Tuesday, for instance, subscribers will be able to stream a live-action version of “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) with rescue dogs in the lead roles. “It’s a faithful retelling of the classic story, right down to the spaghetti-sharing scene,” Strauss said.
Disney gave the “Siamese Cat Song” the heave-ho, though. In recent years, that nasally number and the accompanying animation (cats with slanted eyes and buck teeth) have been criticized as perpetuating racist stereotypes about Asian people. To replace the sequence, the actress-musician Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures”) and her Wondaland artist collective wrote a new tune. The cats are now Devon Rexes.
Inclusion reigns in the new “Lady and the Tramp,” which remains set in the South around 1910. Monáe also provides the voice for Peg, the tempestuous Tibetan spaniel who sings the bluesy “He’s a Tramp” while cooling her heels in the pound. Tessa Thompson (“Creed”) gives Lady her voice, while Kiersey Clemons (“Dope”) plays Darling, the young wife who receives Lady as a Christmas present. Jock, the friendly Scottish terrier next door, is now female (with Ashley Jensen of “Agatha Raisin” doing the vocal work). Justin Theroux voices the Tramp.
Disney Plus will eventually be home to new versions of “Home Alone” (1990), “Night at the Museum” (2006) and “Cheaper by the Dozen” (last rebooted in 2003). Those franchises became part of Disney’s vast collection of intellectual property when its acquisition of 20th Century Fox became official this year.
But Bailey, the production chief, emphasized that Disney Plus movies would, on the whole, allow the company to “place bets on original-to-screen stories — films that we love creatively but have become harder and harder to make succeed theatrically.”
He pointed to “Safety,” a drama based on the true story of Ray Ray McElrathbey, who, as a football player for Clemson University in 2006, tried to secretly raise his 11-year-old brother on campus to protect him from their drug-addicted mother.
Another example: “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” an off-kilter comedic drama headed to Disney Plus next year. Directed by Tom McCarthy, “Timmy Failure” tells the meandering story of an extremely eccentric fifth grader (played by Winslow Fegley) and his trusty imaginary polar bear. The film, which cost about $42 million to make — computer-generated polar bears are pricey — takes place in present-day Oregon and follows the pair as they cluelessly investigate a potential hamster homicide and other “crimes.” It is based on the best-selling children’s book series by Stephan Pastis, who is also known for creating the “Pearls Before Swine” comic strip.
“Movies like ‘Timmy’ don’t really get made,” McCarthy said by phone. “It owes more to independent cinema than anything.”
McCarthy’s most recent movie, “Spotlight,” the newspaper drama about the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, was named best picture at the 2016 Academy Awards. He won an Oscar for writing its screenplay with Josh Singer, and was nominated as best director. Which raises a question: Why did he decide to follow up that triumph, to flex his new power in Hollywood, by making a movie that would go straight to streaming, bypassing theaters completely?
In truth, Disney had to do some serious cajoling. “I flew to New York and begged him to consider it,” Bailey said.
The men had initially discussed “Timmy Failure” as a theatrical release; Disney then shifted its big-screen strategy. “I was taken off guard, and I had to process it a bit,” McCarthy said. “Finally, I told them, ‘Look, if I can make it like a movie, a real movie, then I’m in.’ We made it where we wanted to, how we wanted to, with the cast we wanted to.”
With McCarthy on board, Disney was able to telegraph its streaming ambitions to Hollywood: We have serious filmmakers making movies for Disney Plus — it’s not the kiddie table.