THE MAKING OF MICKEY
LUKE RIX-STANDING profiles the world’s most famous mouse as he turns 90
ONE of the great cultural phenomenons of the 20th century, Mickey Mouse broke ground in animation, became synonymous with the cartoon short, and forged a career as a truly international star.
As he celebrates his 90th birthday, we find out more about the superstar rodent that charmed children, amused adults, and made Disney a household name.
FROM SCRIBBLE TO SUPERSTAR
‘I ONLY hope’, Walt Disney once said, ‘that we don’t lose sight of one thing. That it all started with a mouse’.
Mickey Mouse was Disney’s breakout star but, were it not for a contract dispute and an intervention by Walt Disney’s wife, he might have been neither mouse nor Mickey.
Disney’s first company – the ill-fated ‘laugh-o-gram’ – had championed the ponderouslynamed Oswald the Rabbit and, only after losing the rights to the rabbit, did he begin work on a mouse.
A few tweaks to the Oswald model – an elongated nose, shorter, rounder ears – and Mortimer Mouse was born. After a conversation with wife Lillian, Disney renamed his creation Mickey.
Mickey was a labour of love – with a heavy emphasis on labour. Each cartoon required 15,000 drawings on some 30 different backgrounds, and took Disney’s team of animators anywhere from six months to two years. Until 1946, Disney provided Mickey’s squeaky voice himself.
Their first recorded cartoon was Plane Crazy – an aerial caper featuring bloomers used as parachutes – but the first to screen was 1928’s Steamboat Willie. Mickey nonchalantly chugged down a river, whistling while he worked, getting up to Tom & Jerry-esque mischief with the bear-like Captain Pete, the ship’s parrot, and a passing cow. A major hit, the film catapulted Mickey into the limelight, and more releases quickly followed.
Right from his opening scenes, Mickey was a mouse with a spouse. Mickey’s 90th birthday also marks his and Minnie Mouse’s 90th anniversary, and though their marital status has been the source of some speculation, Disney stated that they were wed ‘in secret’.
Mickey was too pure for politics, but he made an exception for the Germans. In 1931 he fought off an army of suspiciously Germanlooking cats by firing piano keys out of a mounted sub-machine gun. He played a starring role in 1944, when his name was used as a code word by American soldiers arriving on the beaches of Normandy. Mickey Mouse cartoons were banned by the Third Reich – a feather in the cap for the all-American Mickey.
By this point, the pairing of Disney and Mouse had permanently altered the landscape of American cinema. Steamboat Willie was the first cartoon to synchronise screen and sound, and Mickey’s first spoken lines – “Hot dogs! Hot dogs!” – were some of the first in cartoon history. Mickey earned his creator an Oscar in 1932, and later became the first fictional character to have a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
THE WILDERNESS YEARS
FAME, however, can change mice just as much as people, and Mickey’s success was so massive that his eccentricities became liabilities. In order to maintain his appeal, Mickey’s negative qualities were stripped away, leaving a mouse so straight-laced and saintly, he bordered on bland.
Mickey’s personality rested on the idea that he was “a little fellow trying to do the best he could”. So, what to do with him when he became a star? In 1949, Disney himself admitted the problem: “Mickey grew into such a legend that we couldn’t gag around with him”.
1934 had brought the debut of Mickey’s fiery frenemy Donald Duck, whose hare-brained schemes and boisterous temper tantrums picked up where Mickey left off. Between 1941 and 1965, Donald starred in 109 Disney shorts; Mickey in just 14.
Mickey’s filmography dropped off a cliff (1983’s A Mickey Christmas Carol would be his first film in 30 years), but he still had an entertainment empire to run. He was there to meet and greet visitors at Disneyland’s grand opening in 1955, won the hearts of a new generation with his on-and-off children’s TV show the Mickey Mouse Club, and built up a
40% share in Disney product sales. Unsure what to do with him on screen, Disney made Mickey master of ceremonies, family patriarch, and merchandising mainstay.
THE SECOND COMING
BY the mid-Nineties, Mickey had become a bit of a problem. He was still Disney’s prize asset – far too big to be discarded – but it would be a brave executive who tried to modernise or tinker with him.
Long gone was the roguish scamp that charmed his way to stardom – Nineties Mickey was a theme-park mascot and nostalgia piece.
When Andy Mooney arrived as Disney’s head of consumer products in 2003, he couldn’t believe how little the company was using the face of their franchise. “Mickey is our swoosh”, he remarked, referring to the omnipresent tick that Nike uses.
There followed perhaps the grandest marketing campaign in Disney’s history – its goal to make Mickey cool again. Mickey cartoons appeared in 3D, the video game series Kingdom Hearts gave Mickey a rare ensemble role, and a giant graffiti mural of the mouse appeared on the corner of Sunset Boulevard. Some Mickey purists were horrified, but Disney’s bank accounts purred.
T-shirts made up the thrust of the campaign, and Mickey appeared splashed across the chests of Jennifer Aniston, Lenny Kravitz, and Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex And The City.
The result was a Mickey for a new age. The release of video game Epic Mickey in 2009 brought a darker, moodier Mickey, who could be cantankerous and calculating. The game initially received average reviews, but has since gained a sequel and a cult following.
MORE THAN A MOUSE
MICKEY may have begun life just as a mouse (or indeed, a rabbit), but for some, he symbolised the American dream. He rose from the ashes of the Great Depression (“he has helped us laugh away our troubles, forget our creditors and keep our chins up”, wrote the Boston Globe), and Walt Disney had endured years of rejections and bankruptcy before striking mouseshaped gold.
But representing America could be a double-edged sword. As Mickey moved from films to retail outlets, he became known as the cutesy face of capitalism, and shows like South Park presented him as a bullying jaded executive.
Mickey began life as an alter-ego for his creator, but grew to become, in the words of novelist John Updike, “the most persistent and most pervasive figure of American popular culture in this century”.
Mickey Mouse cartoons were banned by the Third Reich – a feather in the cap for the all-American Mickey...
Walt Disney drawing Mickey Mouse, the character that launched an entertainment empire
Mickey has gone through changes company over the decades, from (l-r) lovable alongside DIsney himself in the scamp in the early cartoons, 60s, to a post-modern icon in to face of the the Noughties, featuring in computer games