Arts & Culture » Eye Drive

Tween dreams



You probably saw the headlines last week. The Walt Disney Co. signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar marketing pact with the Kellogg Co. This far-reaching deal calls for the corporation, based in Battle Creek, Mich., to develop and market a series of new cereals that will feature the likenesses of various Disney characters. In exchange for landing these oh-so-exclusive rights, Kellogg has agreed to help promote dozens of the Mouse's upcoming movies, TV shows and theme-park projects. Financial analysts suggested that this particular portion of the deal could end up costing the world's leading producer of breakfast upward of $150 to $200 million.

But you may have missed the other Kellogg story that broke on Monday. Rather than relying solely on Disney's magic to boost its bottom line, Kellogg appears to be hedging its bets. The corporation announced that it will soon launch two additional brands of cereal with cartoon-character themes -- 'toons that aren't quite as cute and cuddly as Mickey and friends.

The characters are TV's favorite dysfunctional family, "The Simpsons." Later this month, consumers will be able to choose between "Homer's Cinnamon Donut Cereal" and "Bart Simpson Peanut Butter Chocolate Crunch."

Mickey's not going to like to hear this. But the Mouse ain't exactly the box-office draw he once was. As for Kellogg, given how badly the corporation's cereal sales have fallen in the past few years, the company is doing whatever it can to boost sales -- even if it means embracing America's No. 1 underachiever, Bart Simpson.

Sure, Mickey can be helpful in reaching little kids. That's the main reason Coca-Cola got into bed with the Mouse last February. Executives at Coke's Minute Maid division decided that the easiest way to sell a new beverage line aimed at children is to place it in containers decorated with characters kids know and trust. So, pictures of the Mouse will be slapped all over Mickey's Xtreme Coolers when they begin rolling into stores shortly.

But Kellogg doesn't want to create cereals that appeal only to small children. They also want to sell products to one of the most important demographics in today's marketplace: tweens (ages 9 to 14). These proto-adolescents have lots of dollars in disposable income at their command, and they radically influence the decisions of their elders -- particularly in the choice of foods that come into their households.

Tweens are sure to see a kindred spirit in Bart, the funny bad-boy who regularly tells Principal Skinner or Mrs. Cranapple to "Eat my shorts." Counter Bart's attitude with that of 73-year-old Mickey, who's always unfailingly polite and seems to think that everything is "swell."

Well, Disney's tired of its characters being regarded as too squeaky clean to appeal to tweens. Which is why the Mouse this month is rolling out an animated sitcom that it hopes will hit Disney Channel viewers ages 9 to 14 right where they live. "The Proud Family" will follow the adventures of Penny Proud (voiced by Kyla Pratt), a 14-year-old African-American girl who -- according to Disney's own press releases -- is "doing her best to navigate through the mysteries, mishaps and merriment that come with those difficult early years of teen-dom."

OK, so far, it sounds like standard sappy Disney Channel fare. Until you peek at the program's production credits and notice that "The Proud Family" is actually being executive-produced by Ralph Farquhar. You might recognize Ralph's name as a scriptwriter from the credits of the long-running hit sitcom "Married With Children" on Fox.

Ralph's involvement alone should be a clue that "The Proud Family" is not going to be your typical Disney Channel program. Sure, the show's creator is Bruce Smith -- one of the top animators at Disney Feature Animation and a guy who racked up hundreds of hours of pencil time on "Tarzan" and "The Emperor's New Groove." But Smith also had a hand in Bebe's Kids, the feature-length animated version of the late Robin Harris' legendary stand-up comedy routine ("We don't die. We multiply"). So Bruce, an Afro American, has already shown that he has a gift for sending up the black community.

Add "In Living Color" vet Tommy Davidson (who provides the voice for Penny's overly dramatic daddy, Oscar) as well as Destiny's Child (the trio sings on the show), and you have the makings of the Disney Channel's very first truly edgy cartoon hit.

It may even feature a few breakout characters that the Disney Co. can use to sell products to tweens. Like -- for example -- cereal.

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