The Walt Disney Company (DIS) recently announced that it will be doing the unthinkable. It's tinkering with Mickey.
The most obvious step in the iconic mouse's makeover will be an upcoming video game. Titled "Epic Mickey," it presents a vision of Mickey that can be naughty or nice, cunning or playful. Rather than the stiff corporate logo of yesteryear, Epic Mickey will offer a character who is more multifaceted, flexible, and fun. Along with the game, Disney is also re-imagining everything about the character. The studio plans to tweak his clothing, personality, and home, presenting a fresh face to the Disney Channel, Disney World, and the internet.
It's about time. While one of the world's most recognizable corporate logos, Mickey has long since receded into irrelevance as a cartoon character. In 2006, Saturday Night Live highlighted this with a satiric riff on the famed "Disney Vault," in which Mickey shepherds a little boy and girl through the studio's legendary repository. After the kids find Walt Disney's cryogenically-frozen head and various disturbing old movies, Mickey tells them, "You take the good with the bad. He created me! Think of all the laughs I've given you!" To which one of the children replies with disbelief, "You're supposed to be funny?"
The little girl's confusion is completely understandable. After all, it's been a long time since Mickey was funny. For many of today's filmgoers, Disney's playful anarchy has been channeled into a variety of animated sidekicks like Beauty and the Beast's Lumiere, Aladdin's Genie or Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear. Mickey, on the other hand, is sort of a distant, stiff Emcee, smiling serenely at the opening of some movies or in promotional pictures of Disney World.
The Early Years
It wasn't always this way: In the beginning, Mickey was playful and kindhearted, but also something of a troublemaker. In his 1928 premiere performance in Steamboat Willie, he sasses his boss, swings a cat by its tail, chokes a goose, plays with the nipples on a sow and engages in a variety of other behavior that would earn him the ire of PETA and a fatwa from the national Parent Teacher Association.
In the ensuing years, Mickey engaged in gun fights, hallucinated after consuming bug spray, partied until the police came, and indulged a wide variety of other antisocial activities. Although his behavior in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of 1940's Fantasia is comparatively mild, he still displays disobedience, laziness, and an almost frightening hunger for power. Tasked with hauling water to a basin, the mouse enchants a broom to do his job while he naps. As he dreams of wielding godlike power, the broom mechanically continues at its work, flooding the basin. Mickey tries to stop it, ultimately chopping it into bits and unwittingly creating hundreds of brooms. In addition to presenting a somewhat terrifying image of a growing disaster, the short shows its star in a very unattractive light.
The Rise of New Disney Stars
Over the years, Mickey's growing cast of co-stars took over the negative traits that make characters fun and approachable. Donald Duck became the face of crankiness, Goofy became the designated bumbler, Pluto cornered the market on uncontrollable enthusiasm, and all of the above became lazy. In the process, Mickey became a sort of harried caretaker, transforming from a childish scamp into a somewhat scolding adult.
With more interesting characters, it was little wonder that Mickey became the dull, stiff face of a corporate empire. Ironically, the Mickey watch became one of his most recognizable pieces of marketing: After all, for him, time had long since stopped.
While this transformation is overdue, it is also fraught with danger: Although Disney's decision to bring back the flawed, playful Mickey fits into the character's origins, it flies in the face of the last fifty years. More than two generations have grown up with a Mickey that is flat and boring. Will they accept a corporate spokesman who has discovered a second youth?
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