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Makeover for cartoon characters to match 21st century

Strawberry Shortcake was having an identity crisis. The “it” doll and cartoon star of the 1980s was just not connecting with modern girls.

Strawberry Shortcake was having an identity crisis. The “it” doll and cartoon star of the 1980s was just not connecting with modern girls. Too candy-obsessed. Too ditzy. Too fond of wearing bloomers.

So her owner, American Greetings Properties, worked for a year on what it calls a “fruit-forward” makeover.

Strawberry Shortcake, part of a line of scented dolls, now prefers fresh fruit to gumdrops, appears to wear just a dab of lipstick (but no rouge), and spends her time chatting on a cellphone instead of brushing her calico cat, Custard. Her new look was unveiled Tuesday, along with plans for a new line of toys from Hasbro.

She is not the only aging fictional star to get a facelift. An unusually large number of classic characters for children are being freshened up and reintroduced— on store shelves, on the Internet and on television screen— as their corporate owners try to cater to parents’ nostalgia and children’s YouTube-era sensibilities. Adding momentum is a retail sector hoping to find refuge from a rough economy in the tried and true.

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Warner Brothers hopes to “reinvigorate and reimagine” Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo through a new virtual world on the Internet, where people will be able to dress up the characters pretty much any way they want. American Greetings is dusting off another of its lines, the Care Bears, which will return with a fresh look this fall (less belly fat, longer eyelashes). And 4Kids Entertainment, which licenses the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, will revive them next year in new video games, where they will have more muscles and less attitude.

Even Mickey Mouse is getting an update, although the Walt Disney Company is still mulling what tweaks to make.

“I love classic Mickey, but he needs to evolve to be relevant to new generations of kids,” Robert A Iger, Disney’s chief executive, said in an interview.

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Reinventing these beloved characters without inflicting indelible damage is one of the entertainment industry’s trickiest maneuvers. Go too far, as Mattel did in 1993 when it gave Ken a purple mesh T-shirt, a pierced ear and the name “Earring Magic Ken”, and it can set off a brand crisis on a global scale.

Done correctly, it can be incredibly lucrative. Mickey Mouse produces an estimated $5 billion in merchandise sales every year. Strawberry Shortcake, even in her diminished state, has generated $2.5 billion in revenue since 2003, according to American Greetings.

If the classic characters look less stodgy, the companies hope, they will appeal not only to parents who remember them fondly, but also to children who might automatically be suspicious of toys their parents played with. For parents, nostalgia is considered a bigger sales hook because of the violent and hyper sexualised media landscape.

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“It’s a terrible world, and modern parents are trying to cocoon their kids as much as possible,” said Alfred R Kahn, chairman of 4Kids Entertainment, which also manages franchises like Pokémon and the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Iger talks about the need to balance “heritage and innovation”. For Mickey and other Disney characters, one method is to keep the core attributes of the characters the same, but to update the world in which they live. For instance, Disney is updating Toontown, the section of Disneyland that Mickey calls home. One plan features an old-fashioned trolley, but Iger is not sure that is a smart idea. Will modern children know what an old-fashioned trolley is?

Warner Brothers, by contrast, is leaving the styling decisions up to the customers, some of whom were weaned on virtual worlds like Disney’s Club Penguin (where they can, say, dress a virtual penguin in a pirate costume and make it dance). At KidsWB.com, which is rolling out a revised site over the summer, the studio will let people customize Looney Tunes characters as they see fit.

First published on: 12-06-2008 at 10:17:54 pm
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