Get ready for Mickey's dark side. Mickey Mouse, the nicest mouse on the planet, is about to get real. Turns out the Disney folks have finally recognized that their too-tight cling to their super-clean icon has been killing the little fella. They're planning to awaken his less savory qualities, allow him to be cantankerous and edgy now and then, maybe even make us care about him again.
That's brave for a brand that generates billions in merchandise sales. And smart, because this world-famous icon has become an increasingly irrelevant pop culture figure. Once it's all about nostalgia, it's game over.
According to The New York Times, it's starting with a new video game called Disney Epic Mickey in which Mickey "traverses a forbidden wasteland." And that's only the first step in Disney's "re-engineering" of Mickey -- the way he walks, talks, appears on the Disney Channel and interacts online.
The game, to be released in 2010 for the Wii, has been created by developer Warren Spector and his team at Junction Point. I rarely like video games, but this one looks different. Spector, in an excellent interview with Time, describes it as a visual marriage between Tim Burton and Walt Disney. That's compelling terrain.
And Spector, a hard-core game nerd and self-described Disney freak, has pulled from the early days of Mickey Mouse, way back to 1928 and Steamboat Willie, when Mickey Mouse was a genuine troublemaker, before he was buffed up to please the widest possible audience.
"The first thing I wanted to do was put Mickey in a world where he's out of place, where he's uncomfortable and has real problems," Spector says. "We've taken him to a strange place where it's a world of forgotten and rejected Disney creativity. There's 80 years of Disney creativity that exists in the archives and we've taken all the stuff that people have forgotten about."
Mickey, Spector reminds, was modeled after the heroic adventurer figure of Douglas Fairbanks and the comic figure of Charlie Chaplin. Back in the beginning, Mickey could be seen smoking, drinking, even abusing animals. I'm guessing Mickey as smoker, drinker and abuser won't be Disney's ticket to the future.
But as a non-gamer, I'm pretty excited to see the new world in which the reimagined Mickey travels. It sounds like it's a world that extends beyond the five-and-under set. And if Epic Mickey is just the first milestone in Mickey's rebranding, the folks at Disney may be entering a new golden era where what they create matters again.