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Comment of the Day: “Disney Can Do Better”

Some of the commenters in the post about Disney’s disastrous foray into “urban” fashion failed to grasp how embarrassing it is for a company with Disney’s legacy and reputation to release products as ill-conceived as the ones in its Graphic Edge line. Historian Jeff Kurtti saw the bigger picture and eloquently summed up everything that is wrong with the Disney Company’s approach to contemporary fashion:

What’s unfortunate is manifold:

1) Plain poor design. Not just ugly, but uninformed; putting characters in situations that have nothing to do with their long-standing and strong identities, or that belittle their history,

2) That an organization that continues to base so much of its business on the strength of its culture can prostitute their core characters in such a blatant way, and that does nothing to build on those characters, or have any cultural value beyond desire for profit,

3) That “relevance” is seen not in playing up the characters’ strengths and long-standing identities in a new and unique fashion, but rather in dressing them up in “whatever the kids are into.”

4) That, rather than using those built-in strengths to lead a design trend in pop fashion, they choose to ape an already-tired “Urban Fashion.”

It’s “Disco Mickey Mouse,” writ large and without tongue in cheek.

  • I totally agree, it’s only done for the sake of making a buck and the characters just happen to be the vehicles (victims) to accomplish that end.

  • Paul N

    The Brewmasters have apparently convinced themselves that their opinion is the same as fact. They, of course, are welcome to their perspective on what Disney’s doing, but “disastrous foray” is a loaded term unsupported by any facts or figures. Indeed, a comment posted by someone on the front lines about the popularity of these designs was completely ignored in favor of pushing an opinion relentlessly.

    Disney, despite anyone’s emotional attachment to the company, is a company first, last, and always. They exist to make money. It has ever been thus, even in Walt’s day.

    • Chris

      Agreed. Just opinion. Also, “putting characters in situations that have nothing to do with their long-standing and strong identities” is something that has been done since Donald Duck orange juice for christ’s sake. There is nothing new.

      • Roland Denby

        Oh, come on! There’s a BIG difference between Donal Duck hawking orange juice and some of the “urban” settings that the Mouse House has now deemed appropriate for these evergreen properties. Unfortunately, while other studios jumped on that inappropriate bandwagon, Disney didn’t lower their standards –until now.

        I remember a friend of mine working at Hanna-Barbera had a submission come across his desk where Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm had to be dressed as Rastafarians — complete with dreadlocks, and drug-related paraphanalia. He didn’t approve the submission, but the higher-ups within Turner (this is when Ted Turner first bought the studio) over-rode his decision. The outcome was the most assanine depiction of these two baby characters I have ever seen. Please tell me how you thnk something like this would be appropriate? Or, how Wilma and Betty on a t-shirt that says, “Yabba-Dabba-Dykes” is appropriate?

      • Vanessa

        And orange juice is good for you. Tagging will get you arrested…

    • I think the big problem is that the designs and staging of the pieces have very little to do with the characters actual personality. There is no denying that Walt and Roy tried to sell Mickey and the rest of the Disney characters. However, Walt particularly was obsessed on expressing the personality of his characters as accurately as possible. Shorts like “Brave Little Tailor” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” were reworked way over budget because Walt was so set on expressing the character of Mickey in his truest form.

      • Funkybat

        That’s the crux of most pertinent objections. Eras change, fashions change, but the characters’ personalities are supposed to be eternal. Having Donald portrayed as a chilled-out hippie with a doobie hanging from his mouth? Totally wrong. Portraying Donald as an angry gangster, shooting down his rivals in a fit of fury? It might be offensive, but it at least fits his general temperament.

        It would have been more in keeping with the characters if they were in poses/situations that one would associate with them. Goofy klutzing up a turntable while trying to spin vinyl, or Mickey pop-locking with poise, those might work. Having them switch those roles wouldn’t.

        I somehow doubt that much thought went into the scenarios displayed on the apparel. All i know is the “realistic Mickey & Donald” idea was pretty cool, although I wouldn’t really call it “urban.”

  • Jeff Kurtti

    However, as we know, in Walt’s day, there was a far stronger “Corporate Conscience” about such issues.

    In 1957, Walt sent a memo to Jimmy Johnson at the Music Company, mentioning that Johnson licensed the song “Wringle Wrangle” (from “Westward Ho, the Wagons!”) for a commercial.

    Walt reminded him that this was not their policy, and that music shouldn’t be used as a jingle for beer, cigarettes etc.. because of their broad audience and timelessness of their films.

    The memo ended with “What’s happening?….isn’t the money coming in fast enough? Or as they say, ‘Pig, don’t make a hog of yourself!’”

    • Paul N

      Yes, many of us have read the Thomas biography. But this isn’t about licensing music for jingles – it’s about character merchandise, something Walt engaged in as early as the Oswald series.

      That you, me, or anyone doesn’t like the designs is irrelevant, except for whether or not we decide to spend money on the merchandise. These characters belong to the company, and they can do as they wish with them, just as Walt did.

      • Jeff Kurtti

        The fact that Walt took something as seemingly insignificant as a commercial license for a minor tune so seriously goes to my point.

        There is no question that the Company can do whatever it wishes, this whole line of discussion has to do with the wisdom or strategic advisibility of doing so in light of a long-established and carefully maintained cultural worth that has kept the characters valuable both as a commercial enterprise and a cultural one.

        People feel proprietary about these characters for a reason, and give their loyalty to them. In return, the Company has tended to affix a serious responsibility to Brand Management issues such as the one in discussion here.

        Oh, and I enjoyed the passive-aggressive dismissal of my example (and I assume my credibility) with your “Yes, many of us have read the Thomas biography” comment.

        Well played, except my experience in this subject goes a fair bit beyond reading a book.

      • Paul N

        It seems your position proceeds from the assumption that the brand management practiced in the past is not being practiced today. No one outside the company knows for sure whether that’s true or not. The argument seems to be that this was a decision lightly taken by those in power at the studio regarding the use of their most valuable assets, when in fact no one – not me, or you – knows for sure exactly what discussions took place regarding this merchandise.

        Apparently, those in positions of responsibility at the company feel this is a way to make the characters relevant for the current target demographic, as evidenced by the existence of the merchandise in question. That you (or I) don’t like the result is beside the point.

        Finally, my intent was not to dismiss your example, but to point out that you’re not the only one who knows the company’s history and respects it. Your credibility is not in question, but the presumption that those whose opinion differs from yours don’t know what came before speaks volumes.

      • Vanessa

        A quick Google reveals that Jeff Kurtti has both significant experience, and the Disney insider status to bring a lot of credibility to the observations he has made.

      • Jeff Kurtti

        Ha! Paul N puts me in mind of a history class I had once. A guest speaker was speaking with great passion about the Kent State shootings in 1970. His description was vivid, and his opinions were quite fiery.

        One of my fellow students was obviously at political opposites with our guest, and snorted, “Huh! How can you possibly know these things? Were you THERE?”

        “Yes, I was,” our speaker quietly replied.

  • The problem is, they want to keep the characters “relevant” and appeal to a new generation, but how does dressing up old-timey characters in urban trappings really accomplish that? If they really want to connect with an audience and keep making new fans, they’d create new cartoons with these characters, not just static images on t-shirts.

    • Jeff Kurtti

      Exactly. The “relevance” of the characters lies in the emotional connection created by them with the audience. Their relevance derives from a set of core values and characteristics that are painstakingly kept consistent.

      • And the way you develop or maintain that “emotional connection” is by telling STORIES, not just turning the characters into dress-up dolls for whatever fashion happens to be trendy at the time.

        I know this is nothing new–as a kid, I had a t-shirt featuring the “Bruce Willis”-inspired Mickey, and as an even younger kid, I had the “Disco Mickey Mouse” album, but I don’t think it’s an accident that the rise of this kind of “reinvention” coincides with the decline of animated shorts.

      • Chris Sobieniak

        Much of what is said here was the recognition and introduction to these guys I’ve had in my childhood during that time as well. No doubt the decline of the theatrical output was what steer-headed these concepts by the time I was born and continued way into this century.

    • Scarabim

      Bravo! Bravo! Disney should create new cartoon shorts starring Mickey and the gang. I’d love a new one along the lines of “Runaway Brain” – or how about one based on “Epic Mickey” that includes Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?

      Come on, Disney, show some creative mojo for a change.

    • Or for that matter if the urban market is a target for them, maybe they should create new characters that “live” in that world. And that new audiences can grow up with and relate to.

  • Andy

    Been collecting Donald Duck memorabilia for over 30 years, and I have a few hilarious pieces of him in “Miami Vice” style 80’s clothing. One of the highlights of my collection is a “Mod” Donald from about 1968 or so. This is nothing new.

  • Jeff

    I had got a disco record as a gift when I was a kid. (I think it was this one: http://www.amazon.com/Mickey-Mouse-Disco-Picture-Disc/dp/B000ZMCJQG.) I never actually listened to it, though.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Hah, I was listening to a tape of this over and over and over as a 6 year old! Several more types of albums got made through the 80’s like “Mickey Mouse Splashdance” and “Totally Minnie”. They were certainly trying to re-invent these guys from time to time.

  • What did football or golf or hockey or road rage have to do with Goofy until they decided to table his “long-standing and strong identity” and give something else a try?

    • Jeff Kurtti

      They did not “table” his long-standing and strong identity for “How to Play Football” or “Hockey Homicide” or “Freewayphobia,” rather they carefully built upon his character and took it into a different arena, with skill and intelligence. Otherwise, they would simply have created a new character.

      • I believe one calls that “a distinction without a difference.”

  • jordan reichek

    tru dat, mah hommiez. wurd. you go, ditney!

  • Stephan

    Posts about T shirts one of the writers thought was gross: 2.

    Combined posts about “Archer” a hit animated sitcom: zero.

    Its the Animation Conversation everyone!

    I still think these are awesome. No matter what one says about them, its an original point of view on most of them,and an interesting design on others. Whether YOU like them is a different issue altogether. Although thanks for directing me to them.

  • I no longer get upset over a small line of merchandise, especially the quick buck t-shirt. The larger issue being classic character legacy, I do get upset over Mickey’s long dead film career.

    I’m happy that “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” is successful, but it is strictly pre-school TV, keeping MM trapped there.

    “Runaway Brain’ was supposed to start a new series of MM shorts. Disney got scared of bad reaction and cancelled the series.

    The long held belief [going back to Walt] was that MM couldn’t carry a feature length film. “The Three Musketeers” begins to prove that wrong. When a 3M theatrical release was considered, Eisner supposedly said, “No one wants to see Mickey in a theater”. Well, don’t you want to MAKE them want to see Mickey again?!

    Mickey [or any classic character] can live again, beyond the t-shirt. Put some money behind it, hire the right talent, allow them to create and actually BELIEVE that it can happen. Because it can. But, it is not….

    • Scarabim

      So some kids got scared watching “Runaway Brain”. Lots of them got scared when they saw “Snow White”. Supposedly their, uh, bladder-related reactions to the Wicked Queen’s transformation into a hag destroyed a lot of theater seats. That didn’t stop Walt from including Monstro the Whale in his second feature “Pinocchio”. And Monstro was MUCH scarier.

      Disney’s run by wimps these days.

  • Ron

    Frankly, I’d be a little more concerned about Disney’s non-animated creations. I think Mickey will survive Disney’s efforts to go edgy. Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and their ilk may not make it through so unscathed. I’d even wager far more testing, internal discussion and soul searching went into these clothes than goes into the machine that grinds these kids up.

    • HermanMelting

      That would involve worrying about deeper social issues born from turning human beings into disposable merchandise, so you can see why some poorly-drawn Mickey Mouse T-shirt is Cartoon Brew’s biggest problem with Disney.

      “What, a company chews up child stars and warps their minds just to sate our culture’s undying thirst for flashy consumerism? Who cares?! That cartoon mouse is totally off-model!”

      • Scarabim

        How about blaming the parents instead of the studio? Have you ever SEEN Billy Ray Cyrus? Short of entering into a nunnery, I don’t see how Miley *could* have grown up with her head on straight.

  • robiscus

    I wish I could construct a salient and succinct criticism like the one Jeff Kurtti provided instead of my usual hackneyed stream of angry and poorly crafted sentence fragments.
    Bravo to Mr. Kurtti!

  • Isaac

    Allow me to suggest Matt’s comment as the comment of the day:

    Amid, before putting down something based solely on your aesthetic opinions, how about you do some research on how well these things are SELLING… Which you may or may not be aware is the ultimate goal here.

    The fact is, coming from someone who works in sales at Hollywood Studios, these are some of our best sellers. Especially the realistic mouse and realistic duck as Mickey and Donald.

    Whether or not these will go down in history as fantastic art doesn’t matter. Disney is a multi-billion dollar corporation, like you said. Which means they’re concerned about making money. Well, Amid, I hate to break it to you, but this kind of stuff is what is making money today.

    • This issue comes up on this site all the time: “Who cares if Yogi Bear (or whatever) is a lousy movie, the kids like it.” “This is what’s popular now.” “Selling is the ultimate goal here.”

      And of course, you’re right–corporations are in this to make money, and to that end, they’re succeeding in their goals. But I’m not a corporation, I’m not part of Disney, and therefore I have no interest in whether a few rich executives get even richer over this. I’m an artist–as are a lot of people on this site–and as such, I’m offended by bad or ugly design, poor storytelling, sloppy artwork, and so on. Hey, a lot of people like McDonald’s too, but that doesn’t make it good for them.

      It’s debatable whether selling some trendy merchandise in the short-term does lasting damage to the characters and therefore long-term damage to the company, but for the most part, we’re not talking business sense here, we ARE talking aesthetics. I’d like to see more quality cartoons and merchandise made, because the more that are out there, the more likely some of those will succeed; that in turn will lead to even more quality products. It’s easy to go after the lowest common denominator and make a few bucks, but craftsmanship and telling quality stories is a much more challenging, and I would argue, more admirable goal for artists.

      • Doug Abramson

        Yes, but aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder, not codified. A lot of us that read this site are not the market these are aimed at; it doesn’t matter what we think. These products may or may not be good for the characters in the long run. Only time can tell. No amount of hand wringing in the here and now will change that. The fact that so many people care about every depiction of these characters is a good thing; but unless one of us can get into a position of power in the Disney Corporation, all we can do is vote with our pocketbooks and ignore what we don’t like; since we have no control over it.

    • Last I checked, this isn’t the Fortune 500 blog but a blog aimed specifically at reviewing cartoons and the culture around them.

      Justin Beiber sells millions of records, is it then wrong to question any other aspect of his music other than the number of records he sells?

      Since when did artists adopt the attitude “it makes money therefore it’s the greatest thing ever and above criticism?”

      A feminist blog would focus on very different criticisms about the exact same product. Let’s not devolve into the makes-money argument as the supposed final answer to everything.

      We know why they do it. We know they can do it. We know they did it. But that doesn’t excuse that they did (not the they need my excusing, I have no opinion on these save the realistic mouse, which is awesome).

  • If anyone’s interested in seeing Disney Consumer “Urban” art drawn with taste, integrity, skill and wonderful design then check this link:


    • Chris Sobieniak

      Bookmarked it already!

    • The link is noted and appreciated

  • Gobo

    The art that folks like Matthew Cruickshank have posted is, indeed, more true to the history and legacy of the Disney characters than the shirt designs posted here yesterday. But they don’t have any of the cleverness, the surprise value, or the uniqueness. They don’t SELL SHIRTS.

    From the perspective of Disney historians and curators, I’m sure these look horrifying. Trust me, from the perspective of folks on vacation, they’re a hit.. and those same people who buy a Banksy-inspired Mickey shirt can then go pose with the “real” Mickey.

  • Mr Gaines

    Oh, God! It´s the end of the world! Oh, poor fictional cartoon characters…

    I need to cover myself with Minnie dolls for a while and cry.

  • Silence Dogood

    I see the brewmasters’ points. But still, its a company. Its trying to make money, and it is suceeding. I personally would never buy the stuff, though.

  • philistines will buy this stuff… there are more of them than those who appreciate good design (and the thought behind it). It was ever thus.

    I wear itchy tweed suits so this doesn’t effect me

  • They own the characters, and they can do with them as they please. That being said, if you think they are ugly, don’t buy them. I was excited to see the Vault 28 store open at Downtown Disney, thinking it was some kind of art store. When I went in and saw it was a Hot Topic clone, I did a 180 and have not been back inside since.

    There is a market for this kind of thing though, and from a purely money making standpoint, Disney is wise to go after it. It’s not for me though, and most likely not for anyone reading this blog.

  • Justin Delbert

    When you make these classic characters look like this, it’s disrespectful to the characters and almost to the fans. What I have are retro shirts which are slightly different. They make the characters look old, but they stay true to their personality or the way they were originaly ment to be. I’ve seen on T-shirts gangster Gumbys, gangster/gambeler Popeyes, and gangster/boxer Underdogs; they’re horrible.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      I’ve been seeing this since Day One in flea markets 20 years ago, it has since been something I came to expect anyway.

  • Jaleel Boone

    What’s a shame about the original article is that, as it’s been pointed out numerous times, this has been done for years. Disco Mickey, Donald Duck Orange Juice, hell, A Goofy Movie as examples. When it’s geared toward the suburban market it’s “tongue in cheek” or “modernizing”, when it’s urban it’s whoring out the characters and suddenly a big deal.

    Give me a break. Where is this Disney high fashion that this line were not worthy of? The generic children’s tees with 90s Mickey Mouse pitching a baseball? The generic Cinderella “Daddy’s Little Princess?” shirt at every Disney Store? Why is this particular one worth pointing out?

    Nothing about those tees made them any more deserving of the disgust the author displayed than any other attempt Disney has made to cash in on pop culture. Amid got worked up and bothered simply because it was “urban.” The post read as extremely unprofessional and worst of all: downright ignorant.

    • Jon

      Last time I checked, Disco, Orange Juice, Baseball, and Princesses are not illegal! Did I miss something? I don’t know of anyone that’s been arrested and thrown in jail for enjoying a nice glass of Orange Juice!

      However, I do know of people going to jail for vandalism! Graffiti is not “pop culture.” “Urban Art” isn’t art, it’s illegal. So if Mickey was on a shirt holding a gun over the body of a dead hooker, is that “pop culture” or is that offensive? Guess I’m now more interested in seeing how far if ok in your mind!

      • Pogo Bock

        Go back and watch the Disney short “Reason and Emotion.” The classic designs of the characters aren’t going away. Disney is using Reason, you are using Emotion. You don’t know much about art, but you know what you like. Fine. If Disney goes urban, so what? You can still get the characters as you know and love them on plenty of merchandise. And do you really think Disney is so blinded by trendiness that they would do anything like you suggest about Mickey and dead hookers? Your description of urban art as illegal says a lot about your perspective on what kind of expression is permissible and what kind is not.

      • Stephan

        Plus this all smacks of weird racism and classism. More so in the comments. But you know, Cartoon Brew readers do that weirdly often. More Tex Gorbin plz!

      • Vanessa

        Clearly Pogo Bock has never had to clean graffiti off of his property.

  • KANG: Are Earthlings intelligent?

    KODOS: They are arguing about whether Mickey Mouse can be shown with gum on his shoe.

    KANG and KODOS: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

  • John

    It looks like Mickey’s had a makeover…


  • Maybe Disney just can do not…

  • Wow two longwinded threads for what amounts to “OH NOES KEEP BLACK CULTURE OUT OF OUR 1930’s BLACK-AND-WHITE-MINSTREL-SHOW-DERIVED CARTOON CHARACTERS!! ;__;”

  • and anyway this stuff is just a slightly too little too late American attempt at the much better and work that’s been done with various officially licenced Disney X street art/hiphop/designer collaborations in Japan for the last decade or so.

  • parsnip

    Let’s discuss.

    “1) Plain poor design. Not just ugly, but uninformed; putting characters in situations that have nothing to do with their long-standing and strong identities, or that belittle their history,”

    Some are designed poorly. Some are designed adequately. I think there might be a taste issue going on, here. I don’t really understand this concept of “long-standing identities,” as if characters have a single identity that’s a composite of their various evolving histories. Isn’t Mickey or Donald’s “long standing identity” just your personal perspective of their personality. If they weren’t allowed to evolve or change aesthetic over time, wouldn’t we be stuck with Steamboat Willy?

    “2) That an organization that continues to base so much of its business on the strength of its culture can prostitute their core characters in such a blatant way, and that does nothing to build on those characters, or have any cultural value beyond desire for profit,”

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. We’re talking about Disney, here. If you think they’ve ever based their business model on “the strength of (their)culture” and not maximum profitability, well that’s just nakedly sentimental. Ask the third-world slave labor that makes their millions of licensed products about the strength of Disney’s contribution to culture.

    3) That “relevance” is seen not in playing up the characters’ strengths and long-standing identities in a new and unique fashion, but rather in dressing them up in “whatever the kids are into.”

    Well, you’ve got me there. That’s what they’re doing, all right. It’s almost like they’re running a business.

    “4) That, rather than using those built-in strengths to lead a design trend in pop fashion, they choose to ape an already-tired ‘Urban Fashion.'”

    “Urban fashion?” In scare quotes? Give me a break.

    “It’s ‘Disco Mickey Mouse,’ writ large and without tongue in cheek.”

    It very well might be tongue-in-cheek. You might just be to earnestly offended on behalf of your own sentimental image of a megacorporation’s line of licensed products to understand it.