To baby boomers, Mickey Mouse is the perpetually cheerful and wholesome host of the "Mickey Mouse Club." To senior citizens, he's the star of movies and shorts dating back to 1928. But to youngsters today, he's mostly a corporate icon - a shill for Walt Disney theme parks and DVDs and the familiar symbol on a gargantuan inventory of merchandise, from bed linens to pancake molds.
This week's announcement that Disney plans to re-engineer the character into something edgier, more irascible, clever and heroic is no doubt disappointing to the older set. This is Mickey as some Bugs Bunny wannabe, without the Brooklyn accent.
What's next, Winnie-the-Pooh as dark avenger, brooding in his high-tech, honey-equipped Hundred Acre Woods lair until it's time to battle a super-villain? (Although Eeyore as the Joker would seem to offer another potential Oscar-winning turn for Hollywood's next great make-up wearing, clinically depressed, stuffed donkey).
One can imagine the Disney board debating the idea: Are we creating the next truly hip SpongeBob SquarePants or the next genuinely square New Coke?
Mickey's makeover will first be seen next year in a video game (naturally) called Epic Mickey. In the game, Mickey is caught in a wasteland populated by cartoon characters including a bitter and envious one named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who just happens to be - in real life? - a defunct Disney character circa 1927.
Trying to update an 81-year-old cartoon character would seem as unlikely as remaking Bill Cosby as a rock star.
What makes the effort seem particularly absurd is that the makeover seems so overdue. If Disney really wanted to keep him relevant to anyone under the age of 40, they might have tried this about a quarter-century ago. The Mickey of today is pretty much your grandparents' Mickey.
Of course, the difference is that the Mickey of today is only more locked into his corporate identity. He's well established not only as a symbol of Disney but of U.S. pop culture and the American corporate monolith. Who can root for a character that represents Wall Street greed (besides Scrooge McDuck, that is)?
Another sign that Mickey's handlers are too late: Both the factory-mentality of Disney and the silliness of marketers tinkering with aging cartoons have already been lampooned expertly by others. The "Shrek" films were early to the punch on the former, and "The Simpsons" did a wonderful take on the latter when Homer was asked to voice the new, hip character of Poochie for the ultra-violent Tom-and-Jerry-like "Itchy and Scratchy" toon-with-a-toon. Both came out about a decade ago.
It's also kind of a shame that there's no place in the entertainment industry for a perfectly decent fellow with a dog (Pluto), a steady girl (Minnie), and a positive outlook (tellingly, he's Bob Cratchit in the Disney adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," not Scrooge or even a Christmas spirit).
But apparently wholesome doesn't get you on the Wii or Sony PlayStation, let alone a top-rated TV show and Blu-Ray disc.
One can only shudder to imagine what they'll do to Donald Duck, who already has troubling anger management issues, or Chip "N" Dale, who have stored enough acorns in the closet to be disappointed with Maine's vote on marriage rights this week.
Mickey might be a squeaky-clean (and voiced) sell-out, but he's our squeaky-clean (and voiced) sell-out.
If Disney wants an edge, let it be Goofy. Now there's a guy in need of a serious makeover.