Possibly one of the most asked questions, and one of the greatest unanswered mysteries in the history of pop culture is: “What exactly is Grimace?” Ah, Grimace. That loveable, good-natured fool who bumbles around McDonaldland, aiding his best pal Ronald McDonald against the evil Hamburgler. So let’s get this debate out of the way and move past this question. Until we ask this question we won’t be able to continue. So, what exactly is Grimace? A letter to Ben Konsima of www.n-chicken.net from a McDonald’s spokesperson offered this explanation of what Grimace actually is:
“Grimace personifies the child in everyone. He’s a big, fuzzy, purple fellow, and is Ronald’s right-hand man.
Everyone in McDonaldland loves Grimace because of his innocent, loving nature. He’s enthusiastic, eager and easily pleased. Grimace walks with a rolling gait, and can’t be classified as any particular kind of animal.
When Grimace first emerged from his cave and confronted the other citizens of McDonaldland, he expected them to be frightened of him. The opposite turned out to be the case. No other character in McDonaldland is more beloved, especially by the children who visit McDonaldland from time to time. While initially conceived as a character representing McDonald’s shakes, Grimace has transcended his role and is now seen as Ronald’s closest friend. He still, though, retains his love of shakes.
Grimace is generous and affectionate. He occasionally causes minor problems in McDonaldland because of his clumsiness and perpetual confusion. But, these problems are generously overlooked by his many friends.”
Well, that may be all friendly and sweet, however, what I want to talk about today is not even about what Grimace is specifically. I’m not concerned with exactly what he is. That is a question which has been asked far too many times and has been answered with far too many responses. Oh no. There are some much more interesting things to look at with regards to the loveable Grimace. Most importantly – his dark origins, his criminal past and one of the oddest evolutions of any character in modern pop culture lore. Let’s just leave the speculation of what Grimace is behind for now and explore
THE EVOLUTION OF THE GRIMACE:
CRIMINAL MASTERMIND OR LOVEABLE FOOL?
When I was growing up, Grimace was, hands down, my favorite advertising mascot. I still have an odd affection for him. He was giant and purple and had a certain Taoist nature about him. However, I was recently surprised to find out that this was not always the case. Oh no! When Grimace first debuted on television screens in McDonald’s commercials in 1971 he did not debut as Ronald McDonald’s right hand man. Far from it! In fact, Grimace was originally a four-armed cave dwelling beast who went by the moniker “The evil Grimace” and stole the milkshakes of McDonaldland. I’m not kidding! Don’t believe me? Need a bit of proof? Take a look at this! Yup! Want some more? How about a young Jodie Foster vs the evil Grimace! So there we have it. Grimace started his days as a four-armed villain with a hankering for creamy drinks. However, back in the 1970s and the 1980s most children’s advertising campaigns seemed to deal a lot with the product being stolen, usually by cereal mascots. Let’s think about this – kids were always trying to steal Lucky’s “Lucky Charms”. Barney was always stealing Fred’s “Pebbles Cereal”, the Trix Rabbit and Sugar Bear were cereal thieves. And McDonaldland was notorious for its criminals. Hell, if the evil Grimace had been a bit smarter he would have joined up with the Hamburgler (robble robble) and the Fry Guys (keep your eyes on your fries) and started their own crime cartel. I have no doubt in my mind that their combined efforts could have outwitted Officer Big Mac and that pesky Ronald McDonald.
Anyhow, if Grimace started his career as a four-armed bad guy, then how did he become Ronald McDonald’s two armed peace-loving best friend that we know him to be today? Now the answer to this mystery may be as closely guarded as exactly what Grimace is. However, I don’t think Grimace was given a lobotomy. No, I suspect part of his sudden rehabilitation has to do something with the Sid and Marty Kroft vs. McDonaldland case of 1977.
In the late 1960s, long before McDonaldland existed, acid-driven children’s television producers Sid and Marty Kroft were approached by McDonald’s and their advertising agency Needlham, Harper and Steeles Inc, in creating colourful characters to appear in McDonald’s commercials. The Kroft brothers were still riding high off of their successful children’s program HR Puf’n'stuf, about a magical dragon who was mayor of a living island where the trees and flowers and animals talked. The Kroft brothers agreed to allow McDonald’s to use the Puf’n'stuf characters for McDonald’s advertising and worked out a hefty royalty fee. However, weeks later a phone call from McDonald’s to the Kroft brothers told them that the plans to use the Puf’n'stuf characters had been cancelled. Then, when McDonald’s introduced its McDonaldland commercials in the early seventies even a retarded child could see the blatant rip off of the Kroft Brothers characters in the advertising. The Kroft brothers quickly gathered their lawyers together and sued McDonald’s and Needlham, Harper and Steeles and were awarded $50,000 in copyright infringement.
Now the majority of the complaints in the Kroft/McDonald’s lawsuit revolved around the psychedelic look of McDonaldland, the cookie cutter similarities between HR Puf’n'stuf and Mayor McCheese as well as Officer Big Mac’s resemblance to Kroft’s Rescue Racers. These are the reasons that Mayor McCheese, Officer Big Mac as well as McDonaldland itself stopped appearing in McDonald’s commercials decades ago despite the fondness that the public still has for them. However, similarities were pointed out between “The evil Grimace” and the Puf’n'stuf villain Seymore the Spider. Thus it can only be assumed that in an attempt to save Grimace from being a victim of the lawsuit, McDonald’s amputated two of his arms and made him into a good guy, thus creating a brand new character that would not be accused of being plagiarized.
Now even in the original “Evil Grimace” commercials Grimace wasn’t all that bright and was still kind of loveable so the transition wasn’t too much of a stretch. Grimace was easily transformed into a child-like character, comparable to Steinbeck’s Lenny from Of Mice and Men. He became the perfect confidante of Ronald McDonald and was his constant companion through the rest of the seventies and into the 1990s. However, Grimace would once again evolve into an even more mystical character at the end of the last century.
In 1999, McDonald’s teamed up with Klasky-Cupso animation to make a series of direct to video McDonald’s animated features. The second feature, The Legend of Grimace Island attempted to flesh out the origins of Grimace, but did not succeed. What we learn is that Grimace is from a remote tropical Island inhabited by Grimaces. However, the origin of what Grimace is, why he gave up his life of crime or how Grimace ended up traveling from Grimace Island to McDonaldland is not revealed within the film. Grimace goes through a major character change in these direct to video films however. Apparently, in these films, Grimace now has “magical powers” and can perform miracles. Not having ever seen the films, I have no idea what these miracles are. I attempted to find out by reading this review for “The Legend of Grimace Island” but the only thing I discovered is that the film sounded pretty awful.
Sadly, in our current century, sightings of Grimace have become more and more infrequent. It seems that McDonald’s has a desire these days to do away with colourful, cartoonish characters and show a more “mature” side to McDonald’s. Now Ronald McDonald, being the cultural symbol that he has become, hasn’t disappeared from McDonald’s advertising and most likely never will. However, the colourful McDonaldland of the past does not appear in McDonald’s new “I’m Loving It” advertising campaigns. There was one commercial in 2002 featuring Grimace and Donald Trump, but with McDonald’s attempting to make us believe that they are now offering more healthy options in their restaurants, a giant fat purple blob doesn’t seem to fit the image that McDonald’s wants to put in the minds of their customers. The “Get Moving with Ronald” fitness campaign seems to contradict the idea that drinking McDonald’s milkshakes will turn you into a fuzzy purple blob. Could this be where the true evil of Grimace lies? Perhaps Grimace didn’t ever reform at all, perhaps he only changed his tactics in creating evil. Possibly Grimace is more clever than we all thought and has been fooling us for years with his sweet demeanor. Maybe the true evil of Grimace is not in stealing milkshakes, but making children believe that McDonald’s food is good and walking them down the dark path of obesity and bad health. Yes, perhaps the evil Grimace has been plotting against us all these years and will eventually be the death of us after all.
At any rate, Grimace seems to have been put out to pasture – at least for the time being. However, the question remains… no, not what Grimace is… the question is: Is Grimace a friend to all or an evil madman? That, friends, is for you to decide.
POP CULTURE BONUS
Want some evidence of Grimace’s evil past? Look no further the YouTube!
Ronald McDonald, with the aid of a young Jody Foster, trick Grimace in giving up the milkshakes and soft drinks that he’s stolen from McDonaldland in this early Grimace appearance.
The evil Grimace is up to his old tricks again, but Ronald tricks him into thinking that he is a Hollywood producer and Grimace gets all wet. The question here is, who is the bigger bastard? Grimace for stealing the shakes, or Ronald for being a liar?
(Pop Culture Addict Note: Want some further reading on the evolution of the Grimace? Check out the fascinating study by David M. Boje, Ph.D on the evolution of the McDonaldland characters at http://www.peaceaware.com/McD/ . This article provided me with a lot of the information I used. Also, take a look at Ben Kosmina’s “What is Grimace” e-mail campaign at http://www.n-chicken.net/tomfoolery/grimace/grimace.shtml. Kosmina has been sending e-mails to people such as Adam West, Robbie “Cousin Oliver Brady” Rist and US President George W. Bush in his quest to find out the answer to this mystery. Stop in to take a look at the responses he gets. Also, Grimace’s official website is at http://www.ronald.com/grimace/index.html.)