What’s the biggest story at this year’s E3 games confab in Los Angeles? Most people would pick Nintendo’s Wii U console, I assume, though Microsoft’s aggressive reinvention of the Xbox 360 as an all-purpose computing device is an intriguing candidate.
As for my favorite E3 story, that’s easy: It’s the attention that Disney Interactive is lavishing on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who costars with the world’s most famous rodent in the company’s upcoming game, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two. The title is scheduled for release on November 18, Mickey Mouse’s 84th birthday.
Students of animation history know Oswald’s bizarre story. In the 1920s, he was Walt Disney’s first big-time animated star, but he was owned by Universal, Disney’s distributor. In 1928, producer Charles Mintz forced Disney out, retaining Oswald and poaching most of Disney’s employees to produce new cartoons about him. (Mintz apparently thought Walt was dispensable, which is a little like thinking that Apple didn’t really need Steve Jobs.)
Disney quickly came up with a new character. His name was Mickey Mouse, and things worked out okay. Oswald, meanwhile, continued on as a third-string cartoon and comics character for decades, mostly under the imprimatur of Walter Lantz, better known for Woody Woodpecker.
The character’s exile came to an abrupt end in 2006, when the modern Disney company engineered a deal with Universal, Oswald’s owner. Disney released ABC sportscaster Al Michaels from his contract, so Universal could reunite him with John Madden on NBC’s NFL broadcasts. In return, Disney got Oswald. It had been a mere 78 years since he’d been on the Disney payroll.
Oswald played a key part in Epic Mickey, but his role in Epic Mickey 2 is a far bigger deal. He’s Mickey’s playable sidekick throughout, and Disney Interactive’s E3 booth is a shrine to the once-popular bunny. Glass cases feature some fascinating Disneyana involving Oswald and other semi-retired characters such as Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar. Here, for instance, is a 1935 drawing presented by Walt Disney to Universal chief Carl Laemmle–maybe the first time that Mickey and Oswald met, and one recreated in 3D form as inspiration for Epic Mickey‘s artists.
Disney is handing out Oswald-ear hats customized with attendees’ names, like Mickey Mouse ears only pointy; when I stopped by, the E Ticket-sized line to get them snaked far out of the Disney booth, the longest queue I saw at any E3 attraction. And enormous images of Oswald and Mickey buddying up in their Epic Mickey 2 adventures festoon the Disney Interactive booth and the corridor connecting the LA convention center’s south and west halls. It’s enough to make Mario himself jealous–and to make a Disney buff like me smile.
I never would have predicted that Disney would ever own Oswald again, let alone draft him for a major video game and spotlight him at E3. But he’s actually extremely well-suited to become a video-game protagonist. He’s energetic, cheerful and a bit cocky. And since he started in the silent-movie era, he’s a rabbit of action who doesn’t need to talk to get his point across. Warren Spector, head honcho of the Epic Mickey franchise, clearly gets that: Disney doesn’t seem to be rebooting Oswald so much as restoring him to his 1920s glory.
There’s only one word to describe his unexpected comeback: It’s…epic.