See you real soon!
Why? Because we like you.
Ah, the Mickey Mouse Club. Those were the days. Britney Spears, fresh-faced and pure, existing in harmony with fellow cast member Christina Aguilera, sans shaved head and pregnant Jamie Lynn. Little Justin Timberlake, from head to toe in gray flannel, not a tattoo in sight. Those were the days before putting Britney and Justin together in a sentence prompted questions about Britney’s virginity, Lance Bass’s sexuality and Kevin Federline’s existence.
Those were the days I preferred. Mickey Mouse was the umbrella under which all this squeaky clean, good fun existed.
Now replace that image of cheery Mickey with a dark, brooding Mickey.
This is Disney’s latest rendering of Mickey’s world in the video game Epic Mickey. If this were the world Mickey lived in during the Mickey Mouse Club, the show probably would have been a lot less early 1990s and a lot more midriff from Britney and Christina.
Some people have taken to decrying the transformation of the Disney icon. Significantly, those people are my age and older. The Mickey debate reveals a deep generational conflict. It seems that those close in age to me and older are nostalgic for the feel-good shows that were on a few years ago. I can’t even begin to impress how many times I’ve sat through a conversation rehashing old Nickelodeon cartoons and how much better they were than the shows on today.
“What about Salute Your Shorts?”
“Oh yeah!” a few people exclaim, pretending to conjure up the tune of Camp Anawanna from the deep abyss of their memory, though they just had this same conversation last week.
“And Hey Arnold!”
Many of the same people, including myself, aren’t interested in the less heartfelt cartoons that are on TV today. Our preference for the gentle and mild is drastically different from a more desensitized generation that prefers Epic Mickey. Disney’s team of researchers has concluded that, indeed, Epic Mickey is what the kids want.
BusinessWeek took note that businesses would have to completely revamp their marketing approach for the latest generation:
Marketers haven’t been dealt an opportunity like this since the baby boom hit. Yet for a lot of entrenched brands, Gen Y poses mammoth risks. Boomer brands flopped in their attempts to reach Generation X, but with a mere 17 million in its ranks, that miss was tolerable. The boomer brands won’t get off so lightly with Gen Y. This is the first generation to come along that’s big enough to hurt a boomer brand simply by giving it the cold shoulder–and big enough to launch rival brands with enough heft to threaten the status quo.
Generation Y, at 60 million strong according to BusinessWeek in 1999, is a generation that is exposed to more graphic and explicit images at an early age. With far less censorship, movies are packed with sex, action and violence. As a result, desensitization occurs.
I see this within my own family. Though my brother and I are part of the same generation, I grew up much more sheltered since I’m almost 10 years older. My brother, 12, spends a lot more time than I did playing violent video games and watching cruder cartoons. When I was 12, there was no Facebook. My brother uses it to talk to his friends about the fights he witnesses at school. Same parenting, different generations.
Interestingly, Epic Mickey was not a concept derived by the old-timers at Disney, but by interns working there in 2004. This further compounds the notion that the desensitization of Mickey is an idea embraced by a younger, less nostalgic demographic.
The premise of the game is ironically symbolic of Mickey’s struggle with his celebrity status:
Mickey is forced to become more aggressive because he’s entered into a dark Disney world where he is no longer famous. He must scribble and draw his way through different levels (which, granted, doesn’t seem so frightening) to reclaim his spotlight as Disney’s mascot. This evil underworld — where celebrities’ stardom ceases to shine— is run by Oswald the Rabbit. (Desperate for fame…evil underworld…I wonder if Lindsay Lohan was one of those interns.) If you don’t know who Oswald is, that’s the point. He was the Disney star pre-Mickey Mouse, before Disney disputes lead the character down the rabbit hole and into obscurity. Disney just acquired the rights to the character again in 2006.
Why bother to touch a beloved character and overhaul a trademark? Disney thinks this risky venture is going to breathe new life into a character that generates about $5 billion in merchandise a year. (That’s a lot of cheese for a little mouse.) Disney is afraid that Mickey has lost his appeal to younger audiences. On a different note, Mickey remains extremely popular internationally, which suggests that perhaps it is specifically the American mindset that is desensitized. It’s unknown whether the Disney researchers have made any conclusive findings about this, though.
Still, the generational divide seems to be the biggest issue at play. A secondary divide is gender. The company is actively trying to draw in young boys, whose interests lay with edgier characters. Disney’s studies on boys’ interests have concluded, not surprisingly, that Disney princesses and everything sweet and nice don’t cut it for the boys as much as it does for the girls. Boys are still watching Disney, but girls are more likely to follow through with buying merchandise. Because of this, we have new Mickey merchandise that looks like this:
Boys, Disney found, are more likely to publicly proclaim their fandom for cars, dinosaurs, and now, conniving Mickey Mouse. I can see where there is some logic to Disney’s approach. My friend touts his love for Disney/Pixar’s Cars. “Why do you like Cars so much?” I asked him, expecting him to gush about the music, or the subtle innuendos.
“Um…it has cars.” Well put.
I for one would rather not see Mickey become part of some Disney black hole. I am much fonder of the Mickey Mouse that — forget a conniving grin —had a toothless smile. Rather than reinventing an icon, there must be a way to bring back the Mickey we know and love so that everyone wins — the young and the old, the boys and the girls. Hopefully the next set of Disney interns get to work.