Disney classics woo wee ones

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Looking to revive 80-year-old toon idol Mickey Mouse, Disney is thinking young.

Really young.

Taking the “cradle-to-the-grave” strategy literally, Disney has introduced a whole new generation to Mickey and its other core characters (Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy, et. al) via the toddler-targeted Disney Channel skein “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”

It’s a money move on Disney’s part: The munchkins who fall in love with Mickey today will be the kids who clamor to visit Disneyland tomorrow. In turn, those tweens will become the teens who wear Mickey-branded merchandise and then adults who spawn Mickey-loving kids of their own.

“No question this is the most beloved and important character to the Disney company,” says Disney Channel Worldwide entertainment prexy Gary Marsh. “Certainly, the conversation internally has been trying to, if not reinvent, then reintroduce Mickey to this new generation. Our goal is, in success, that this character will be exposed to 500 million people.”

Mickey’s rebirth as a character for the under-5 set is paying off: Earlier this month, “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” posted its best ratings yet among kids 2-5, improving the channel’s “Playhouse Disney” block by almost 40% vs. last year. Show regularly finishes in the top 10 basic cable rankings with the high-chair demo.

But even more key to the Disney empire, the show has further awakened what had been a stagnant character. Beyond his star turns in the first half of the 20th century, Mickey was known more from his role as a Disney mascot (seen in the company’s logos and merchandising) than from any recent entertainment.

While the old Warner Bros. cartoons were saturated on TV for decades, the Mickey shorts from the 1940s and 1950s weren’t as widely seen through the years. By the time both Mickey and Bugs Bunny appeared in 1989’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” it was clear Warner Bros.’ strategy had paid off: Bugs Bunny still came off as a contemporary character, while Mickey seemed out of place.

Behind the scenes, Disney execs were battling over the soul of Mickey. Execs including Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were anxious to push Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, Daisy and Pluto back out into the world. On the other hand, traditionalists (rumored to include Roy Disney) felt the characters needed to be protected — and the risk of injuring the core franchise was too great.

Many Disney execs were especially opposed to bringing Mickey and friends to television, which was seen as a step below theatrical animation.

“There was a constant schizophrenic discussion taking place within the company,” says one former Disney animator. “Everyone agreed on one level that counting on people to know Mickey from cartoons from the 1950s was impossible… There was a push, ‘We gotta do something with Mickey.’ But then there was a pull, ‘Yeah, but we can’t risk damaging him with second-class material.’ ”

Slowly, the barriers began to fall — first with ancillary characters on shows like “Duck Tales” and “Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers.” Then Goofy was given a showcase in “Goof Troop.”

At that point, it became OK to dust off the core Disney six. First came 1999’s “Mickey Mouse Works,” which featured new shorts in the classic Mickey cartoon style. That was followed in 2001 with “House of Mouse,” which starred Mickey as a nightclub owner (wrapped around bits from “Mouse Works” and classic Disney cartoons).

But “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” reps the most ambitious attempt yet to bring the classic characters to TV. It’s also the first time Mickey and company have been rendered in computer-generated animation (handled by a firm in India).

“Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” has a wider reach than any other Mickey-themed program, airing on 25 Disney Channels and eight Playhouse Disney channels around the globe. Show is also distributed to territories where Disney doesn’t run its own kid-centric channel.

Because this is corporate icon Mickey, Marsh says extra care was put into the show’s development. The company also conducted massive amounts of research with caregivers and their young children.

“There’s no question there’s a focus and a care with Mickey that is probably greater than any other character,” he says. “It’s the most beloved and important character to the Disney company.”

Mickey and pals talk to the camera and engage viewers in helping him solve a problem (by counting, figuring out which gadget to use or other interactive games). Many episodes are based on nursery rhymes, such as the seg where Daisy needs help in finding her wayward sheep.

The new version also strips away much of the past history of Mickey and friends (Goofy, for example, is no longer a father), keeping the characters straightforward and uncomplicated.

The success of “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” has already spurred Disney to dust off another franchise, Winnie the Pooh, and adapt it for the tyke aud. Geared toward introducing a new generation to the bear and his pals in the Hundred Acre Wood, “My Friends Tigger & Pooh” will also be produced with CG animation. It launches in May.

“Clubhouse,” which bowed last year, comes as programming blocks geared toward the diaper- and potty-training set have become the biggest growth story in kids TV. The genre has created megastars out of characters such as “Dora the Explorer,” “The Wiggles” and Disney’s “Little Einsteins.”

But compared to such properties, programs featuring classic characters like Mickey have a quick leg up at launch.

Jessi Dunne, VP of global toys at Disney, notes that there’s an immediate windfall when it comes to merchandising familiar brands. Toys can go on store shelves a few months after a show premieres, rather than the customary 18- to 24-month delay that’s usually enforced to guard against shipping toys for a new show that flops.

“With ‘Little Einsteins,’ even as well as it’s done in the ratings, we have to let kids sit with the characters and buy into the songs and everything else,” Dunne says. “But everyone knows Pooh, everyone knows Tigger. We have an advantage that way.”

Marsh says development comes first and merchandising later — noting that parents still control the TV when it comes to the under-5 crowd, and they demand some educational and learning curriculum with the shows.

But once they feel comfortable with the program, he adds, parents have been quick to embrace the business portion of preschool fare.

“Parents want to buy toys and merchandise that help interact with their children,” says Marsh.

Parents will also watch characters they’re familiar with — and that’s where Mickey and Winnie again have an advantage.

“If we can create images and stories that kids today will remember the same way, then we will have done our job very well,” Marsh says.

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