Look, I recognize that I am at the front of the Baby Booming Bulge and that my notion of contemporary culture may have stalled somewhere in the mid-seventies, but I grew up with the assurance that Disney’s groundbreaking mouse was the most recognized figure in the world. Clearly, that is no longer the case. In fact, from what I can see, Mickey is running a poor third or fourth in the Disney pantheon of Disney favorites and limping along in terms of endorsement and merchandising.
Maybe not even fourth or fifth.
You’ve probably wondered just how many Disney characters are walking around Disney World during the course of a day. How about one hundred and fifty mostly loveable members of the Disney cast, sweating their way as Grumpy or Goofy? Visitors to the Magic Kingdom vote with their feet, and according to someone, the most sought out characters on the lot are Chip and Dale, Cinderella, Buzz Lightyear, Elsa, and Anna. There are several version of Mickey on hand, the most popular of which is Mickey the Magician, but compared to some of the most heavily merchandised, even magic is a slow sell.
The next batch are almost entirely the catalogue of heroines generally known as the Disney Princesses. Some are of royal blood – Elsa, Anna, Jasmine, Cinderella, Ariel, Snow White – and some soon may be. I’m not sure what rank Beast held before becoming beastly, but Belle will certainly move up several notches as the lady of his house. Rapunzel is all set, and Mulan is probably somewhere in the upper echelon of imperial advisors.
A younger crowd is fine with Mickey and Minnie, much more popular when they appear together, but is considerably more excited in meeting Winnie the Pooh Eeyore, Tigger, and the rest of the denizens of the 100 Acre Wood, Tinkerbell, Simba, and Nala.
There are some oddities among the most popular; Gaston, for example packs ’em in as do Lady Tremaine, Drizella, and Anastasia. Ariel’s nemesis, Ursula and her companions, Flotsam and Jetsam, not so much.
In terms of merchandising, Disney’s richest haul has come in absorbing the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. No contest. But in the standard Disney line, the Disney Princesses as a team pulled in 1.6 billion bucks last year followed by the Winnie the Pooh line of stuffed animals and clothes at 1.09 billion. Next, not just in the Disney stable but across all demographics, Cars I and II (1.05 billion ). The Hello Kitty line intrudes on the Disney sweep, but a group identified as Mickey And His Friends (Donald, Goofy, Pluto, etc) pull in 750 million.
And his friends. Et al. Daisy Duck, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Ludwig von Drake.
I’m not worried about Mickey; I’m sure he’s been putting something aside since his days as a roguish scamp and the trendsetting rodent in the Disney menagerie. The various iterations of Mickey Mouse have kept pace with the times, even as the jollity of cartoon life was eventually replaced with the heavy lifting expected of a corporate magnate. He’s still the face of Disney, a sop to those of us who remember Disney as a cartoon factory, relatively benign and cheerful. From the 1940’s on, perhaps we think of fairy tales and nature films. Then, with the widespread ownership of televisions, at first a Mouseketeer clubhouse, then A Wonderful World of Color. Mickey has survived the corporatization of the Disney brand and still gets a lot of facetime at all of the Disney outlets and the various kingdoms; the mouse, his ears, still respected merchandising icons.
Who took Mickey’s place as the most recognized, most iconic figure in the world?
That would be Michael Jordan, who despite having retired from the NBA thirteen years ago, pulls in something like 100 million a year from endorsements and who generates about 1.7 billion a year in sales.
OK, even the most rabid of Michael Jordan fans have to agree that in terms of cartoon viability, almost any of the mouseworks holds up better than ProStars, the Saturday Morning Cartoon featuring Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Wayne Gretzky as crime fighters, and yet, there’s Jordan on billboards around the world.
What to make of this shift in popular culture? Sign of the times? Sign of the Apocalypse? Maybe an indication that we’ve lost a little innocence, some small measure of faith in tiny ambassadors of goodwill and buoyant, spunky little guys who beat the odds?
On the other hand, Hello Kitty?