In the world of Kingdom Hearts, Mickey Mouse is a being of incredible power. Not only is his proper title “King Mickey,” but he also serves as a cross between divine prophet and deus ex machina, appearing unexpectedly at times of great peril—often clad in ominous black robes or hyper-stylized armor—to cut down waves of enemies with a key-shaped sword, a soprano giggle issuing from the rictus grin stretched always across the bottom of his plastic face. Rex Musculus, eternal, implacable, and strong, has even ventured down to the role-playing game series’ version of hell, one of the few characters able to cross, Christlike, into the Realm of Darkness and emerge from the Harrowing unscathed.
Back in our reality, Mickey Mouse is similarly mighty and omnipotent. As the star and mascot of The Walt Disney Company, the smiling rodent serves as avatar for the world’s most influential culture-producer (and acquirer). Aside from its wealth of branded, fairy tale-repurposing animated features, Disney in 2019 owns behemoths like Marvel Entertainment, Pixar, The Muppets Studio, and Lucasfilm. Between Star Wars and Spider-Man, Ratatouille and Rowlf The Dog, Disney has laid corporate claim to essentially the entirety of Western childhood and young adult entertainment. Under its ever-widening umbrella, the company puts out cartoons and movies that rule the box office, and maintains a fleet of amusement parks that decades of canny marketing have made nearly synonymous with the concepts of caring parenting and childhood happiness.
Back in 2002, with Marvel and Lucasfilm still just a glint in its hungry eye, Disney was a smaller-scale cultural leviathan. These were the lean, pre-Frozen years that produced cinematic shrugs like Treasure Planet (and the admittedly more popular Lilo & Stitch), which perhaps explains the company’s willingness to embark on one of the most absurd experiments in crossover entertainment imaginable. Kingdom Hearts was a frenetic blend of beat ’em up action and number-strewn RPG genres, with a singular claim to fame: This is the game where characters from Final Fantasy creator Square Enix (then still just pre-merger Square) could set out on an adventure through Disney-themed worlds, populated with Disney-supplied casts of heroes and villains.
The player is cast as Sora, a preteen with brilliantly articulated hair and improbably giant shoes, who ends up fighting alongside Donald Duck and Goofy (reimagined as a powerful wizard and noble knight pledged in eternal fealty to their squeaky-voiced king) on a quest to save the universe from a dark lord’s evil plans. Along their journey, they fly a Fisher-Price-looking spaceship to planets where hermetically sealed Disney movies play out in condensed form, Sora and pals hanging out with Aladdin and the Genie in a copy of Disney’s copy of an imagined Arabia, Jack Skellington in a recreation of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ariel in her deep-sea home, and many, many others. The Final Fantasy influence results in not just cameos from the RPG series’ characters, but intense melodrama, ludicrously twisting plots, and plenty of invented proper nouns. (Take your pick of assorted Heartless, Nobodies, Unversed, Dream Eaters, and more.) The Disney influence counterbalances this with the simplicity of children’s fables. The mix of the two defines Kingdom Hearts as an absurdity unlike anything else.
The last numbered Kingdom Hearts—Kingdom Hearts II—came out in 2005, on the PlayStation 2. (By which point, Walt Disney Animated Pictures’ fortunes had declined to the point that the best fresh reference the game could muster up was the ability to summon Chicken Little into battle.) There’s been a plethora of canon spin-offs since then, each with names as frighteningly compelling as Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage (included in the Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue collection). But, despite a stream of increasingly convoluted additions to the plot, the wait for a proper sequel in the form of Kingdom Hearts III has lasted nearly 14 years.
Now that it’s here, the game itself is an unsurprisingly delirious mishmash of labyrinthine plot developments and Disney movie simplicity, in the vein of all its predecessors. Still playing as Sora (who still fights alongside wizardly Donald and shield-toting Goofy), III’s story is meant to serve as a climactic endpoint to the long fight between a bloated cast of original hero characters, original villain characters, and their pre-fab Disney allies. Over the decades of Kingdom Hearts games, the series’ storyline has spiraled out of control, prequels and wheel-spinning filler entries resulting in a dense web of interconnected characters related to one another through time travel, clones, shadow selves, and the machinations of a secret organization of evil dudes in matching black pleather trench coats. But in 2019, it’s not just Xehanort (or Ansem, or Xemnas, or any of the game’s other mustache-twirling villains) whose plots seem wide-reaching, ominous, and damn near impossible to parse out.
As in every Kingdom Hearts to date, the game’s heavier plot elements are balanced by the straightforward retellings of the various Disney “worlds” Sora and friends travel through on the path toward their ultimate confrontation with evil. Kingdom Hearts III draws from Pixar films and Disney CG movies, which means flying to planets where fan-fiction Wikipedia summaries for movies like Tangled, Toy Story, or Frozen are sandwiched between cutscenes that advance the larger plot. In practice, this creates a disjointed feel to everything. The Disney worlds, basically, come across like contractually obligated inserts or back-of-box sales points, almost completely separate from the larger mysteries being uncovered when Sora’s done helping Buzz Lightyear free himself from the Power Of Darkness, or freeing Rapunzel from her shitty mother’s imprisonment.
This incongruous plot construction has always been a problem with Kingdom Hearts, but it’s also given the series an outré sort of charm, too. Back in 2002—and even 2005—there was a hilarious novelty to the concept of Final Fantasy-style characters, tormented with existential questions and always in conflict against universe-destroying demigods, thrown into the same world as wooden boy Pinocchio, gangly, bipedal dog-freak Goofy, or doe-eyed Dumbo. Though there was the inevitable, creeping cynicism of any corporate-approved mainstream crossover project inherent to Kingdom Hearts’ basic premise, in those days Disney was easier to dismiss as “the kids’ movie people.” Its influence felt contained and knowable.
Kingdom Hearts III, though, is a 2019 video game, released in a time when we’ve all come to accept Disney as far more than just the purveyors of animated movies that slap a copyright on global fables. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the game’s use of Pixar-themed levels, which provide large chunks of the setting for the third game’s action. Disney might be more firmly tied to Pixar than its other subsidiaries—especially after now-ousted studio head John Lasseter ascended to the throne of the company’s main animation studio in 2006—but the computer animated films of the latter studio have always felt separate from Disney’s main animated output. Even now, Pixar exists at a step removed from the larger Disney empire, their films discussed as something different—“Pixar movies” rather than “Disney movies.” Kingdom Hearts III’s inclusion of Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and Ratatouille alongside the similarly computer-animated Frozen or Big Hero 6 worlds forces a reconsideration of this, reminding us that even Pixar is another tentacle of the Disney beast.
There’s a flattening effect to this—an understanding that, when it comes to intellectual property in crossovers like Kingdom Hearts, there’s no “Pixar,” or “Marvel,” or “Lucasfilm.” There is only the monolithic Disney. Square Enix resists the urge to slip Captain America or Rey into this game’s corporately owned gumbo, but for how long? Once, it was novel and fun to see different diffuse pieces of culture awkwardly melding together, but Kingdom Hearts III shows that, in our current monopolized landscape, these kind of mashups are more like an inevitability.
In the past, Mike Wazowski and Donald Duck fighting monsters alongside an RPG character who summons Simba to aid him in combat against Jafar or Maleficent could only have existed in the realm of unlicensed fan fiction. Now, this is a canonical extension of the Disney brand. Viewed in 2019, there’s a noxious sense that a game like Kingdom Hearts III is a victory lap for a corporation so successful at absorbing its business competitors that it’s almost completely dominated the minds of global audiences, especially those of a tender age.
And so, here, as King Mickey strolls through the game’s plot, once again inhabiting his Kingdom Hearts role as semi-divine, monarchical rodent, he appears less like the fish-out-of-water crossover character he was in past games, and more like the ambassador and god-king—uniter of disparate fictional worlds, his position as modern Disney’s mascot dictates. (Is it any shock that the game ties its best ending to players’ ability to pick out the iconography of Hidden Mickeys seeded throughout its various animated worlds?) This, in some ways, isn’t necessarily Kingdom Hearts III’s fault. It’s just a continuation of the goofy experiment started lo these 17 years before. But it is the cultural moment the game inherits, and one whose larger picture turns the once-funny premise of the series from outlandish to faintly sinister.
Unlike before, it’s difficult to play a Kingdom Hearts game and see it as a simple novelty—an excuse to run around bloodlessly bashing monsters while a Disney kaleidoscope flashes by. Instead, the latest in the series forces a consideration of just how much of modern childhood now belongs to a single company. It makes the player think about what’s given up when our imagination—when the kid smashing her box of assorted action figures together, pretending they know each other—is owned by a single corporation, able to bend something as multivariant as popular fiction into the shapes its directors deem worthwhile. In the end, it can’t help but feel a bit Heartless in the process.