I guess it had to happen. Still, I wasn’t prepared. Just in time for his birthday (November 18, 1928) Mickey Mouse, the classic Disney character, is going in for a makeover. And it’s not just a few cosmetic tweaks this time. Disney’s decided that, to remain relevant, the iconic mouse needs a new personality. Out with the cheerful, happy, mouse. The new Mickey will be darker and edgier. Disney calls him “cantankerous and cunning.”
Most eye-opening is the venue where the updated Mickey will make his debut. “Epic Mickey” will be featured next year in a new video game on the Wii platform. It’s described as the Cartoon Wasteland, an apocalyptic world where the mouse meets up with past Disney characters who are jealous of his popularity. The formerly squeaky-clean mouse must battle an evil overlord to restore the wasteland. Lovable Mickey’s going from cartoon character to action hero.
Some experts have criticized the plan as too risky. But, most brand professionals will tell you that a character needs to stay relevant to new generations. And, given Mickey’s age, this one is overdue. But, there’s a lot at stake for Disney. The change has all kinds of implications that go beyond the $5 billion in Mickey merchandise sold each year. Mickey is synonymous with Disney itself, which is precisely the problem. Disney stopped making Mickey cartoons in 1953, and the Mickey Mouse Club television show ended six years later. For most people, the Mouse has long ago morphed from cartoon cut-up to walking corporate icon. So, while Disney updates and reintroduces the cooler, darker Mickey character, it’s also tinkering with its corporate brand. That’s a tricky business.
What’s ironic, though, is that the Mickey personality change is more like a throwback to the mouse’s original character. As some of the news reports have indicated, the old Mickey, of “Steamboat Willie” days, was a mischievous, amorous rabble-rouser. So, maybe Mickey as videogame action hero isn’t so far off. He’s taking the gloves off, but going back to his roots.