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Disney takes Mickey back to his roots

Videogame gives icon retrofit

Disney is taking Mickey back to his roots.

The Mouse House will reintroduce its famous mascot in “Epic Mickey,” a videogame due late next year that will revive several of the character’s key personality traits that have been dulled or forgotten since his introduction in the late 1920s.

While vidgames have become a more important part of the company in recent years, Disney has deliberately avoided casting Mickey in starring roles in its top titles, with the exception of “Kingdom Hearts,” a 2002 role-playing collaboration with Square Enix that led to several sequels and combined Disney characters with the “Final Fantasy” franchise.

The reason for leaving him out until now: While Mickey has long been a key symbol for Disney, his personality had been lost over the years.

“He’s an image, and he’s an icon, but he’s not a character anymore,” said Warren Spector, VP and creative director of Junction Point Studios, the Disney division making the game, and the well-respected creator of the far more adult vidgame franchises “Deus Ex,” “Thief: Deadly Shadows” and “System Shock.”

“I want to remind Mickey that he’s a hero — and to be a hero, we need to give him purpose. We need to throw him up against problems worthy of a hero — not just trying to give Pluto a bath,” Spector said. “I want him to be funny. I want him to struggle. I want to ‘age him up’ a little.” But Spector added that the game will enable players to ultimately decide “what makes Mickey cool.”

To do that, Disney is reviving the mischievous mouse of cartoon shorts such as “Steamboat Willie” and “The Brave Little Tailor,” in which Mickey is portrayed as adventurous and rambunctious. In the game, which will be released exclusively on Nintendo’s family-friendly Wii console, Mickey is kidnapped from his home and brought to Cartoon Wasteland, a world that’s home to all of Disney’s rejected creativity. Armed with a paintbrush and paint thinner, he will interact with the environment, creating and destroying areas and items as he goes, which winds up unleashing an enemy to battle.

The Wasteland is filled with several long-forgotten Disney creations, chief among which will be Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the cartoon character Walt Disney created before Mickey but lost the rights to in 1928, when the financier and distributor of his films fired him. Disney CEO Bob Iger personally took on the task of reacquiring the rights to Oswald from Universal in 2006.

Oswald is something of an antagonist in “Epic Mickey.” He resents his brother’s success and the love Walt had for Mickey. The redemption of Oswald is one of the player’s chief goals in the game.

Spector is a longtime Mickey fan. His hand in making games like “Deus Ex” is evident in the edgy gameplay of “Epic Mickey.” The presentation of Mickey as a character who’s not afraid to start a fight may be jarring to people who have grown used to him as the straight man who reacts to the zany antics of Goofy, Donald Duck and his other animated associates. But Disney execs say they don’t believe the changes carry any significant risk.

“We designed the game for a certain demographic,” said Graham Hopper, exec VP-general manager of Disney Interactive Studios. “This game won’t be easily played by a 4- to 5-year-old. You can point to where ‘Star Wars’ has gone or where properties like Spider-Man have gone — there are different iterations between the games, the movies and the TV shows.”

It’s a strategy that’s also been adopted by other franchise-holders like Warner Bros.’ videogame division, which created a kid-friendly “Lego Batman” and the darker “Batman: Arkham Asylum” in the same year to reach all fans of the Dark Knight.

Disney began brainstorming “Epic Mickey” in 2004, and handed off the property to Spector when the Mouse acquired his Junction Point shingle, based in Austin, Texas, in 2007. Junction Point opened its doors in 2005.

While Disney declined to disclose the budget on “Epic Mickey,” “It is receiving an investment appropriate to our company’s most valuable character,” Hopper said.

“Epic Mickey” is the latest high-profile game to be announced by Disney Interactive Studios, which has been focusing more on developing titles based on its popular animated characters — Tinker Bell recently bowed in a new game — and movies, and TV shows that air on Disney Channel.

Initially, Mickey’s return to his roots will be strictly a videogame phenomenon. Spector, though, says he hopes the game will serve as a launching pad for a wider rebirth of the character at the Mouse House.

“Realistically, all we’re trying to do is make Mickey the game hero he deserves to be,” he said. “In my secret heart of hearts, I would love to see a movie or a comicbook — and I plant that seed everywhere I can around the company and see if it takes root.”

(Marc Graser contributed to this report).

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