Mickey Mouse gets his edge back

Quick! Describe Mickey Mouse's personality in six words or less. Having a hard time? All right, what was the last wacky thing you saw him do? Still stumped?

Mickey is a lot of things, but specific he isn't. One of the world's most identifiable characters has become little more than a corporate mascot who is rolled out whenever the Disney company needs to sell something. Mickey is a placebo, a blank slate of a cherub upon whom children and adults alike can project their fondest make-believe fantasies. Even when he makes personal appearances, he's usually silent.

Mickey could be said to be stuck in 1955, but Disney is aware it's nearly 2010. So its image-makers, aware that Mickey's "aw-shucks" act has grown stale and won't last forever in a world filled with ironic and savvy kids, are taking a risk with their flagship character. Breaking the code Mickey has followed for the past half-century, it has authorized a new image for His Mouseness, which could turn off millions of parents who treasure the genial personality they're used to. Harking back to his early years, he'll become a colorized version of his 1930s self: wiry legs, sharp angles, a stockier belly, a whip-like rodent tail, and a peaked brow that can twist into a variety of perturbed expressions to match his flashing temper.

Epic Mickey, coming out next year for the Wii console, will feature a new Mickey based on a very old concept. In the Wii game, Mickey travels back to the black-and-white cartoon world he abandoned in the 1930s, squares off against the Walt Disney character he replaced (Oswald the Rabbit) and runs around trying to eradicate other cartoon characters with paint thinner. Then he continues his quest to other locations and scenes from Disney history.

Marketing experts, who care nothing for honoring history, are made nervous by the shift, likening the coming change to the introduction of New Coke. Seen through the prism of Disney history, that's nonsense -- if anything, it's a return to the original Coke, and this "new" Mickey is closer to what Walt Disney himself created and voiced -- but their nervousness is well-placed, because our current generation of American parents has grown used to the Placebo Mickey.

But Disney purists, the ones who are versed in the first decade and a half of Disney animated short-form cartoons upon which the entire empire is built, are fascinated to see Mickey return to his rascally roots. He was, as the New York Times, puts it, "the Bart Simpson of his day," but even that reference is dated by about 20 years, as Bart himself, like Mickey, has gradually grown sweeter and milkier with time.

If anything, Mickey was the Stewie Griffin (from the show Family Guy) of his day, sassy and inappropriate and deliciously devious. In one of his earliest shorts, Plane Crazy, he dumps Minnie Mouse from a biplane because she refuses to kiss him. In The Karnival Kid, he spanks the exposed buttocks of another character. Corporal Punishment Mickey worked in the raucous, politically incorrect period of the Great Depression. Mickey's modern stewards see a modern day relevance in that brazen attitude, which is a principal reason they've chosen to debut the new Mickey against the backdrop of the old Mickey Mouse Sound Cartoons.

In fact, many of the original Disney characters are perceived by parents as being far more squeaky clean than Mickey. In the original Peter Pan, Tinker Bell spends the entire movie trying to murder Wendy, yet many modern parents persist in seeing the homicidal fairy as something quaint and plucky. Sleeping Beauty, one of Walt's favorite films and the namesake for Disneyland's castle, is a nightmarish swirl of dark imagery, and let's not forget that someone chases Snow White through the woods, trying to dig her heart out with an axe.

Modern audience expectations don't fit comfortably with the realities of Disney lore, but we agree to ignore the incongruities for the sake of Disney "magic." Seen from that perspective, the throwback version of Mickey could end up alienating the parents who feed Disney's coffers.

Based on the fact that the "new" Throwback Mickey is first appearing in a video game, a product with a niche audience, it's not a wild guess to assume that Mickey's makeover won't be thorough. Although this makeover has not been reported to affect any other aspect of the Disney empire, if it does, first we'd be likely more of the rascal in platforms such as video games and maybe the tween-targeted programming of the Disney Channel. The hand-holding M.C. sweetheart in the theme parks and in official promos is less likely to be affected. (His walk-through "house" at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is slated for demolition for the upcoming Fantasyland expansion, which could, but probably won't, clear the way for a new home reflecting the retro Mickey.)

If anything, Mickey's getting a split personality to match the mock virtuousness that every mass media icon must be skilled at playing, whether crying for Oprah or pitching their Cinderella story to People. His two sides will be used in turn to suit the audience.

Like children themselves, Mickey will be a character model when Mom and Dad are watching, and a craftier sort when it's playtime.
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