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Video game rebrands Mickey for a new generation

Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse

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‘Disney Epic Mickey’

Game system: Wii

In stores: Nov. 30

Price: $49.99

Rated: E for everyone

Updated: November 29, 2011 12:04PM

He is one of the most recognized cartoon characters in the world, but lately Mickey Mouse has seemed like a fading star along the lines of “All About Eve’s” Margo Channing, surrounded by scene stealers.

“For the last couple of years, Mickey has been reduced to a kind of corporate icon seen only on Disney letterhead,” said Becky Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archive. “After 1940’s ‘Fantasia,’ he seemed to lose his curious, mischievous edge and became the foil for those around him like Goofy and Donald.”

That all may change today when “Disney Epic Mickey,” a video game for the Wii, hits store shelves. The game represents the Walt Disney Co.’s first attempt to rebrand the iconic character and make him more relatable to modern audiences.

It is a joint production between Disney and game developer Junction Point Studios. Junction Point’s president and creative director, Warren Spector, is best known for the kid-unfriendly cyberpunk video games “Deus Ex” and “System Shock.”

It would appear to be an unlikely pairing, but Spector said Disney came to him with the idea.

“I had been pitching my usual video game fare of M-rated science fiction fantasy games to Disney, and sure enough, they weren’t interested,” the Northwestern alumnus recalled. “They did have this other idea about a game made up of a wasteland of forgotten Disney characters and ideas, and they had me when they told me it would star Mickey Mouse.”

Spector sees the image overhaul as less a gritty reinvention and more a return to the mouse’s roots.

“If you go back to those original cartoons, you’ll find Mickey has a mischievous streak, and it carries through to ‘Fantasia’ and ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ ” he said. “For me, that is the film that absolutely nailed the original character.”

Spector had his work cut out for him.

“I’m pretty good at reaching the 18- to 34-year-old hard-core gamer, but I have no clue about how to reach kids and families,” Spector said. “The challenge for me here was how not to lose all the hard-core gamers while still appealing to non-gaming adults and children.”

Parents can breathe a sigh of relief; the resulting game is rated E (for everyone) and is no “Grand Theft Auto” with Disney characters. Spector said he treats the characters and their history with the utmost respect.

“My dad bought me a plush Pluto toy the day I was born,” Spector said. “I had Mickey Mouse ears before I was 1. I have always been something of a Disney geek.”

In the game, Mickey finds himself trapped in Wasteland, a world filled with forgotten ideas — everything from once-popular animated characters like Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar to old Disneyland attractions.

“Mickey meets up with his older brother Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” Spector said. “He’s the first forgotten and neglected idea of Disney’s, and he resents Mickey because he thinks he should have been in ‘Steamboat Willie’ and thus the star.”

There’s also a character that Mickey had a hand in accidentally creating, an ink stain called “The Blot” that is responsible for sucking most of the color out of Wasteland. It was a story that Spector said he could tell only through the video game medium.

Mickey’s weapon is a magic paintbrush that erases or restores objects in the game.

“Every story asks a question,” Spector said. “In other media, it is the job of the author to answer the questions. In games, I am able to let the gamer answer them, and in ‘Epic Mickey’ it’s up to you to decide how important are family and friends and how you define a hero.”

Players have to decide quickly what to destroy using paint thinner and what to repair using paint, and there are consequences for each action.

“You need to play through the game at least three times,” Spector advised. “Every door you open closes off another later in the game.”

Spector said the game also gave him the chance to right one of the greatest wrongs in animation history.

In 1927, Disney pitched and sold an idea to Universal Studios to create the adventures of a lovable, occasionally mischievous rabbit named Oswald.

Disney, just 22 at the time and eager to keep his animated dreams alive, signed a contract with producer Charles Mintz that gave Mintz complete ownership of the character. Disney made 26 “Oswald” cartoons before Mintz took ownership of the character away from him.

“It was bad enough that Walt lost Oswald, but he also lost most of the animators,” Cline said. “He was devastated, but knew he had to come up with another character fast.”

Working with longtime partner Ub Iwerks, Disney created what would become his company’s signature character. The loss of Oswald always haunted him, though.

In 2006, the Disney Co. finally had an opportunity to bring Oswald back. TV sportscaster Al Michaels was under contract to both ABC and ESPN (both owned by Disney). He asked to be released to NBC, owned by Universal. Disney executives saw an opportunity.

“They offered to release Michaels from his contract, but they wanted the rights to Oswald for the trade,” Cline said.

It freed up the legal issues that kept Oswald out of the public eye and from being mentioned in Disney history.

“I’ve been told that dysfunctional families are a core of many of my games,” Spector said. “It’s only appropriate that a portion of ‘Epic Mickey’ is about Mickey making peace with his older brother.”

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