Mickey and the Monsters: How Disney and Universal treat their icons

November 8, 2017, 3:03 PM · When you think of Disney, what character springs to mind? That's easy — Mickey Mouse. Disney has embraced its original* character as its corporate symbol, making Mickey the must-see character in all of its theme parks.

Okay, the *asterisk: While everyone know that Mickey Mouse is the foundational character of the Walt Disney Company, Mickey was not Walt's (and Ub Iwerk's) original cartoon character. That was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who from his creation until recently was the property of Universal Studios.

Speaking of Universal, what characters spring to mind for Disney's biggest rival in the theme park business? These days, it might be Harry Potter, or the Minions, or a T-Rex from Jurassic Park. But for most of its history, the public associated Universal most with its classic monsters: Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein's Monster, etc.

And that's the problem for Universal. The studio has failed over the years to protect and cultivate its most iconic characters, unlike the way that Disney has with Mickey Mouse and the rest of the Big Five (Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto). That's a lost opportunity for Universal, which needs every creative weapon it can summon if it wants to continue to take market share from Disney in the markets where its theme parks compete.

Not that Universal hasn't tried to make things right by its monsters recently. But Universal's attempt to craft a Dark Universe franchise to revive the monsters' popularity has failed.

Okay, maybe it's too early to write off the Dark Universe. Marvel co-produced a lot of movies before establishing its now wildly-successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's unfair to expect Universal to establish an MCU-level franchise with just one film. But if Universal saw that its Dark Universe already was on a path more like Warner Bros.' troubled DC Extended Universe than Disney's MCU, why wait to change direction and take a different route?

Still, that means Universal continues to lack a defining presence for its woefully underutilized monsters. Universal starts at a disadvantage to Disney with its monsters, since a group of creepy killers doesn't exactly project hospitality the way that Mickey does, with his ever-present smile and outstretched arms. But Mickey didn't start life as a goodwill ambassador. He's a mouse, for goodness' sake — a rodent typically associated with filth. And early Mickey? He could be... well, a bit of a jerk. Disney intentionally has refined the character over the years to make him more suitable as a mascot.

Should Universal do the same with its monsters? Should it recast them as a family-friendly crew of welcoming mascots? No, because Universal is not Disney. Universal long has promoted itself as having more of an edge than Disney — a destination where sarcasm and scares are just as much a part of your day as more cheerful fun.

It's not that Universal's monsters are repellent. Far from that, Dracula might be the most alluring all of monsters, with Frankenstein's Monster attracting a following that's as oversized as he is, too. There's clearly appeal here, one that Universal needs to tap into as it further develops these characters and their stories for its movies, TV networks, and theme parks. Don't make DC's mistake of creating a bleak and dour universe for these monsters. Universal's monsters should be a mix of scary, suspenseful, and a little bit sexy, inhabiting clever, entertaining stories that make us want to spend time with these creatures.

Ultimately, great characters in great stories build fan bases. That's something that Disney has had to remind itself of with Mickey Mouse in recent years, too. For many fans, Mickey had become the character you have to meet to Disney because, well, he was the character you were supposed to meet at Disney. Mickey became meta, with almost no one remembering why Mickey had become popular in the first place. That's why Disney in recent years has reinvested in new animated shorts to remind people that Mickey is a character with a personality and stories to tell. And that's why Disney finally is giving this rebooted Mickey Mouse his own ride in a theme park for the first time, with the upcoming Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida.

Universal's monsters deserve the same. These are the icons of Universal Studios and they should never be reduced to signs in the parking garages, or walk-around characters that no one wants to stop and meet. No, Universal should not make its monsters into another Mickey. But it should invest in them with the same level of renewed commitment that Disney is now showing to Mickey Mouse.

Replies (22)

November 8, 2017 at 4:55 PM · When I hear the word "Disney", I think of Mickey Mouse. When I hear the word "Universal", I think of Universal Studios theme parks.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, is it?

November 8, 2017 at 5:18 PM · Universal's problem with the Monsters is that they really don't know what to do with them. Instead of making them more horror films, in the likes of these recent horror successes such as 'It', they tried the Dark Universe, which also reminds me of Robert's article about the when people try to create an universe before the story. If done right, maybe horror monster films with mere nods or recurring characters between one another instead of totally connected stories, could work well and re-popularize this franchise.
November 8, 2017 at 5:29 PM · E.T. was an ugly monster alien that they tried to turn cuddly. It didn't work. That's why E.T. never survived to be the mascot of Universal even though it's still has a presence in the park.

Look at Universal's film distribution output in the last few years. It mostly releases horror movies. That they fail to revive a Dark Universe is pure irony. The Mummy revival failed since they tried to turn it into an action movie with Tom Cruise. I would advise them to be cautious with any other potential franchise. Dracula could have potential, but these blood suckers have enough sunlight with the many television series in the last decade like the Vampire Diaries and True Blood. Let's move on.

Their animal based animated movies have hit a wall. The Secret Life of Pets was overhyped. They should come up with something new to feature in the Universal Park. It should be based on human characters so people can relate to them.

November 8, 2017 at 6:03 PM · As a fan of Universal's classic monsters (and the Brendan Fraser Mummy reboot that inspired the ride was fine.... but what in the love of God were they thinking with that Tom Cruise disaster????.... sorry, rant over....), I would love to see more of a presence for the classics than just Monsters Cafe (though I do adore the cafe...). I don't really want a forced reboot of the monsters -- the classics are classics for a reason -- but I'd love to see a really, really good dark ride based on the originals.... with maybe a little Munsters thrown in at the end in a nod to Universal-style humor.
November 8, 2017 at 6:07 PM · So moral of the story for Universal - kinda do what you're trying to do with these characters but don't be so bad at it.
November 8, 2017 at 6:52 PM · Amen! But what does it say about Universal's treatment of the monsters when they are not even featured at Halloween Horror Nights? As I have written many times in their surveys, they should have a presence there (whether in a house of a scare zone) every year. The insane success of HHN proves that there is a demand for scares. The idea of a dark "Universal’s House of Horrors" ride (based on the house from HHN 22) would be incredible. Unlike Disney, it's a shame that Universal continues to neglect the foundation the company was built on.
November 9, 2017 at 8:54 AM · Why does Universal need to have it’s icons for marketing? Without a defining icon it hasn’t affected market share. What relevance are they any way? Get the rights to Potter, build the 2 most incredible themed lands and redefine theme park immersion, massively increasing market share. Mickey and the gang are yesteryear’s generation. Their relevance diluted each passing year. Pixar are the creative identity for today’s generation while Star Wars is the direct rival to Universal’s demographic. Universal could possibly utilise them for HHN in some capacity but I can’t see how they would woo and wow the typical theme park goer by their year round presence.
November 8, 2017 at 9:10 PM · I have consistently been critical of many things that Disney has done, but here is a situation where they have gotten it right, they still have managed to keep their mainstay relevant over the years without significant change. The Mickey cartoons of yesteryear are still enjoyable, and kids of all ages will always enjoy them.

What Universal fails to realize is they have classic horror icons, but they feel like they have to flash them up. Why were the Hammer films popular in the day? They kept the gothic feel to the films. There is no reason to make those movies CGI action-fests. That is not what they are. It is OK to push the limits on the horror. They did in the 30's. Hammer did in the 50-60's, and they can do it now. Give Guillermo del Toro $60 million, say it has to be gothic horror, it can push the limits, but do what you want. Don't try to make a Marvel universe out of it.

Studios ar trying so hard to start a franchise, that they are failing to tell a good story in the first place. Franchises will not come with good stories, they will come with great stories, visionary directors, with all aspects of the production firing all all cylinders. A production micro-managed by suits and a big star before the cameras even roll are not likely to start a franchise with a gothic horror IP from the 30's.

Mickey is still here, because Disney never forgot what they have. The Mummy tanked, because Universal failed to realize what they have.

November 8, 2017 at 10:12 PM · Is interesting that Universal's best themed areas in park are attached to other companies IP, like Harry Potter or the Simpsons (like Disney has with Pandora).

I agree it's disappointing that universal haven't utilised their classic horror icons in their Halloween nights

November 8, 2017 at 10:33 PM · The big problem is Dark Universe didn't need Cruise, Depp or Bardem. Horror fans know it's NEVER about big box office stars, it's the story and scares that count. Making them big epic comic-book styled FX spectaculars just didn't fit and why folks turned on Mummy and thus ended this before it even really started.
November 9, 2017 at 3:14 AM · I don't share your view Robert. I think Mickey is thrown under the bus for as a overused icon in the parks and, at least for me, the Mickey shorts nor the Ducktales reboot gives me the fussy feeling I had due to it's art choice. When I think of Walt Disney world I think about the had written "Walt" letters. It represented the hand drawn comics and cartoon I grew up with. Now they are thrown out of the window and it's a painful reminder of a more creative time.
Universal has it's globe. It as generic as can be but the park is a lot of different thing for a lot of different people. I think that is great. If the icon was ET or the Monsters or Potter or Minions you leave other demographics behind and narrow the scope of the audience.
November 9, 2017 at 8:52 AM · Where Disney has been particularly clever is to use three simple circles as a logo and to maximise this logo throughout their parks, resorts and merchandise.
November 9, 2017 at 7:52 AM · I think that Universal has an opportunity, if they choose to accept it, to take classic monsters and update them for a modern audience. They can take classic characters who have become stale stereotypes and turn them into real, human characters that audiences can empathize with. Though these stories may be dark or scary at times, it's the character and the story at the core that people care about. Nostalgia is a big factor for what people feel for Universal - how hard would it be to create new beloved characters such a Dracula and Frankenstein's monster in a way that current audiences can relate to?
November 9, 2017 at 8:38 AM · Mickey Mouse is, for better or worse, THE icon of Disney and they have done an excellent job of cultivating that association.

Universals mascot is more diffuse: movies. Advantage to this is that you can choose your mascot...

Mascots for Universal could include the much more relevant, exciting, and interesting characters from Harry Potter, Fast and the Furious, Transformers, Men in Black, The Mummy, Despicable Me, E.T., Marvel, Dr. Sues, Jurassic World, The Simpsons, and many others.

Oh, and if you want a "cute" mascot from Universal that is also highly relevant, in the near future they will be able to use Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and friends.

November 9, 2017 at 11:17 AM · I just saw Dracula 2000 on Amazon Prime and starring Gerard Butler as Count Dracula. This is not how they should do it. They modernize it to death. Luke Evans who was Gaston in Beauty and the Beast starred in Dracula Untold. That was okay, but not great. In the end, it shows Dracula in modern times as if there's a sequel ready in the wings.

There's a story about it here.

"Luke Evans definitely isn't convinced that his version of Dracula has been staked through the heart.

The Fast & Furious star played the immortal vampire in 2014's Dracula Untold, which had been tipped as being connected to what has become Universal's Dark Universe of monster movies.

Dracula Untold was very successful at the worldwide box office with more than $200 million in ticket sales, but its reviews were poor.

Evans has now acknowledged the film's flaws, but suggested to Screenrant that he'd like another shot at playing Dracula alongside Tom Cruise's Mummy hunter, Russell Crowe's Dr. Jekyl and Javier Bardem's Frankenstein monster in the shared Dark Universe."


Punch in the gut line

"Unfortunately for Luke, The Mummy director Alex Kurtzman recently told Digital Spy that it's unlikely that Dracula Untold will ultimately connect to the Dark Universe."

November 9, 2017 at 12:47 PM · Bottom Line: Disney's Mickey & Friends are cuddly. Universal's monsters are not.
November 9, 2017 at 1:22 PM · The problem with trying to reignite Universal's monsters is that producers today believe that horror films must be action-packed gore fests. The old films relied heavily on suspense, which they don't think the video game generation will sit still for. It might be possible, though, if done well. Making them modern day would be a mistake though, they should be period pieces, hey, nobody thought that a historical drama like Titanic would succeed. Make it classy, classic, suspenseful and maybe it's possible.

I'm not sure why E.T.'s appeal didn't last, maybe it was too 80's, but my personal opinion is that they shouldn't have included some cuss words, it seems like Spielberg was trying to make it more 'cool', but I think if you want it to stay a true family classic, the even small amount of cussing cheapened it.

I think Mario will be the future mascot for Universal, only he can compete with Mickey.

November 9, 2017 at 4:38 PM · Well, Universal is not necessarily about family friendly as they point out in the Horror Makeup Show. The parks perfectly hit the niche for people 14-50, and that is fine. Disney is for 2-102, and that is fine. I think Universal could make an Animal House attraction, and people would love it. But back to the monsters, they really invented the genre, and it was shocking at the time. The House of Horrors was probably the most fun I have ever had in a theme park, and it was scary as hell. If they had that in a Disney Park, kids (and adults) would crap their pants. They should go back to their roots and make good horror movies. This year is a great example of how to and how not to do it: It and The Dark Tower. One was very faithful to the tone, did not try to tone it down, had good acting, and respected the audience. The other had to gut the story, get big stars, and went all flashy. One made tons of money and other lost tons.
November 9, 2017 at 10:51 PM · If the new park doesn't have a Universal Monsters land, I'll consider it a failure.
November 10, 2017 at 12:30 AM · It's amazing to me that nobody remembers—but through the 1980s, Universal had splendid animated mascots: Woody Woodpecker (and to a lesser degree Chilly Willy and Andy Panda).

The hundreds of cartoons played like gangbusters until about 1985, when Universal repackaged them in a 65-episode series that mostly contained later, duller shorts. They took all others off the air as a strategy to focus attention on the new package. Then they reran that new package into the ground in syndication, never revising or refreshing it, until the rigid and relatively poor selection of cartoons drove viewers away.

Later, in about 1999, Universal created an all-new Woody show. Fox aired it for one year and dropped it. That didn't have to be the end; it aired around the world for numerous additional seasons. But Universal has never released those extra seasons here, nor has it put them out on DVD or Blu-ray.

What does Universal hope to gain by sitting on a valuable property, losing money as its popularity dies? The monsters weren't the first victims.

November 10, 2017 at 4:55 AM · Agree Universal invented the horror genre and not to utilize it ? Puzzling? I too fill out survey after survey suggesting this idea as well as a Krusty Krab restaurant for the kids, also is Ghostbusters under Universal control? Can't believe neither Universal classic monsters nor Ghostbusters has a presence at HHN.

And please tell me why a mechanical Jaws is not swimming in the lagoon at Universal Studios?

November 13, 2017 at 9:05 AM · Always frustrating for a fan to see the rich history of US unacknowledged. Oh, for the want of a world class dark ride featuring the Universal Monsters, or even better, a couple of rides in an entire land with village, castle, and forest. And yes, please let Jaws swim around in the lagoon! The Uni Globe is a terrific icon, but win over multiple generations of fans with the Mount Rushmore of cinematic monsters-the legendary and immortal Universal Classic Monsters. Better movies wouldn't hurt, either...

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