Mickey Mouse Funhouse’s “Vardavar!” episode makes a splash at Disney

Mickey Mouse and his pals took a trip to Armenia to celebrate Vardavar. I spoke with the writer behind this monumental episode, Kathleen Sarnelli Kapukchyan.

Credit: Disney

Almost everyone knows and loves Mickey Mouse, the playful cartoon clad in red shorts weaving in and out of misadventures with his merry crew — Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Pluto and Goofy. Walt Disney himself credited the success of his empire to this little cartoon, even saying, “It all started with a mouse.”

Today, Mickey and his crew appear on Disney Junior’s Mickey Mouse Funhouse, a whimsical animated series for preschoolers and their families featuring an enchanted talking playhouse “Funny” who embarks on all sorts of journeys to unique worlds. The show, geared to kids ages two to five, features two 11-minute stories in each episode and now ranks as a top 10 monthly series on Disney Junior YouTube. 

In the new season, Mickey, Minnie and their friends return to places including the Enchanted Rainforest and the Old West and venture to new locales such as Movie Magic Land, as well as culturally rich locations like Korea and India.

Undoubtedly, the show has become a hit in households across America ever since it first premiered in August 2021. That’s why, when the Mickey Mouse crew took on Armenia to celebrate Vardavar, Armenian families and Disney enthusiasts were both thrilled and touched to finally see Armenian representation in such an iconic, beloved show. 

In the “Vardavar!” episode, which takes place in an even more colorful and animated Armenia, Minnie Mouse encounters the Armenian goddess “Little Star” who helps her into a delightfully pink taraz. Armenian parents were amazed that the episode reflected so many aspects of Armenian tradition, including the food, celebrations and proper pronunciations of Armenian sayings. 

Credit: Disney

The idea behind this episode can be credited to writer Kathleen Sarnelli Kapukchyan, a Brooklyn-born and Glendale-raised Latina writer who grew up near the Disney lot and always dreamed of writing there one day. “I always loved Mickey Mouse — he always promotes kindness, and it resonates with lots of children and adults today,” she said in an interview with the Armenian Weekly. “As a little girl, I always had a very active imagination and would write stories for my little brother and friends. My abuelita knew I always loved to read and tell stories, and she encouraged me to continue writing and pursue my dreams.”

Although Kapukchyan always had Disney as her goal, she started off her career working on documentaries during her studies at UCLA. “I made a documentary called ‘The Los Angeles Drought’ with my now husband, Manvel Kapukchyan,” she reflected. “It got so much attention at our undergraduate research panel that UCLA ended up hiring us to write a Tibetan Plateau documentary.”

From there, the ambitious writer decided to focus on getting a spot at Disney and was hired as a production department secretary. She moved her way up to apprentice writer and, eventually, staff writer for Mickey Mouse Funhouse — a show she holds near and dear to her heart. “I started working on Mickey Mouse Funhouse in 2019 right before COVID hit. What drew me to this show were the iconic characters and how our showrunners, Executive Producer Phil Weinstein and Co-Executive Producer Thomas Hart, put a new spin to the Mickey world. Mickey and the gang explore different worlds, cultures and friends, and it is really inspiring what this show brings to the audience worldwide.”

Kapukchyan was inspired to write this episode a few months after the birth of her son. “I first pitched this story to my story editor Mark Drop, because I wanted to write a story that was uniquely Armenian. I thought Vardavar would be the perfect holiday for Mickey and the gang to celebrate and learn,” she said. The team at Disney was extremely supportive of Kapukchyan’s idea, ensuring that her co-workers were exposed to authentic Armenian celebrations of Vardavar and prepped with a cultural consultant. The casting department was backed with all the tools needed to land on the perfect voices for Armenian characters. 

“There is not a lot of Armenian representation for young children, so it was important for me to research correctly and represent Armenians in a positive way.”  

Everyone can agree that the attention to detail woven throughout the episode had a profound impact. For example, the Armenian goddess “Astghik” — clad in the traditional braids and tri-color taraz — was voiced by Liana Bdéwi, a French and Armenian voice actress who could pronounce Armenian sayings perfectly, all with the classic Disney demeanor. “[It was important to me that Astghik looked] Armenian, from her hair, to her face, jewelry and taraz. There is not a lot of Armenian representation for young children, so it was important for me to research correctly and represent Armenians in a positive way,” Kapukchyan said. 

“When I went to Armenia I had a little Armenian doll with a taraz and lent it to my executive producer so he could see the colors, textures and fabric of the outfit so our art team could be inspired. Our cultural consultant also guided us to make sure we were accurately representing Armenian culture,” she continued.

The inclusion of Armenian sayings in the episode was especially gripping and even emotional for some Armenian viewers who rarely see representation on screen. “I knew I wanted the Armenian language spoken so that Armenian children can see that their language is included and it is something to be proud of,” said Kapukchyan. “My husband and his tatik really helped me in ensuring that I spelled everything phonetically correctly so the voice actress could say the words correctly. Thankfully our voice actress spoke Armenian, and we also had our consultant on hand to advise us if there was any mispronunciation.”

Even having Minnie Mouse in a pink taraz was moving, which was made possible by Luna Miranda and Jose Zelaya from the Disney art team. “They are some of the most talented people who make sure to bring in Minnie’s style and mix it with the fun Armenian culture,” she raved. “[Everyone] was so eager to learn more.”

Credit: Disney

Although the episode hit the nail on the head for most aspects of Armenian culture, Kapukchyan has one regret: “I would have loved to show Chip and Dale using the mangal, Armenian barbeque grill, to make the khorovats. They show them giving her khorovats, but it would’ve been super cool to show the mangal!”

This episode was just the start for Kapukchyan, who plans on showcasing more Armenian representation in animation along with her husband. When her inbox and social media platforms flooded with positive responses after this episode aired, she knew how important it was for Armenians to be heard and seen on animated shows. The Kapukchyans are currently working on their own project, inspired to make Armenian culture available and accessible to young Armenian and non-Armenian children alike.

Carolina Gazal

Carolina Gazal

Carolina Gazal is a writer for the AGBU Magazine where she covers timely topics on Armenian identity and culture. She is also a freelance lifestyle writer at Insider, where she was previously a Freelance Fellow editing articles on food, entertainment and travel. She holds a BA honors degree in English and Communications from Boston College with a concentration in Creative Writing, where she received the Senior Honors Thesis Grant to travel to Sivas/Sepastia and pen her family history.

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