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A century ago who would have believed a small little, rodent creature would be the icon of not just a multi-billion dollar company but also a symbol of innocence, youth, and, happiness. The icon of course is none other than Mickey Mouse, a character that has hundreds of different meanings to millions of different people. But the Mickey the public knows today is not the same cartoon mouse that audiences knew when he made his first public appearance in 1928. Rather throughout the eight decades he’s been around, Mickey Mouse has evolved and grown, just as the public has.
Where Mickey was once a mischievous, abrasive, adventurer over the years he’s transformed into a cheerful, calm, educational tool.
But the question lately has been whether Mickey Mouse is still a relevant figure in a fast paced, high-tech world full of video games and action films. Where exactly does the eighty-three year-old Mickey Mouse fit in with newer icons such as Super Mario and Spongebob Squarepants? Disney hopes to answer this question by rebranding the aging character to once again become an important character in the upcoming decade of the teens.
By going back to the essential qualities of humor, heart, mischief, and adventure that once made up Mickey Mouse, Disney can rediscover a character that is truly timeless.
It’s important to note that Mickey Mouse wasn’t always the prize creation of Walt Disney; you see once upon a time there was a young animated creature known as Oswald The Lucky Rabbit.
Oswald was a happy, upbeat fellow who often found himself in sticky situations whether it was run away vehicles, danger at war or his girlfriend getting kidnapped by a shadowy figure wearing a top hat when he’s trying to milk a robot cow. Sadly Oswald’s happiness soon came to an end when his creator Walt Disney realized despite being the man behind the character, he actually didn’t own the rights to the animated rabbit, as he was property of the distributor Universal Pictures. Upset over his contract, Disney broke his ties with Universal, which meant leaving both his staff and Oswald behind.
When attempting to come up with a new cartoon character he himself would own, Walt Disney’s mind wandered back to the days he spent living in Kansas City. His studio there was frequently overrun with field mice, and he found himself particularly close with one specific mouse. When bored with work he would play with the mouse, training the rodent to remain in a small circle through the process of operant conditioning by touching its nose with a pencil whenever it began to leave. Walt then decided to make the character modeled after the mouse he grew so fond of. The basic design used for Oswald was still retained, with mostly minor changes to make the character resemble a rodent rather than a rabbit. Walt originally planned to name him Mortimer, but his wife thought the name sounded pretentious. The two compromised on the name Mickey, and with that the most famous cartoon character was born.
Contrary to popular belief, “Steamboat Willie” was not Mickey’s first appearance, but rather it was six months earlier with the short “Plane Crazy” (1928). Based after famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, the short consisted of Mickey becoming a pilot as an attempt to impress his future girlfriend Minnie Mouse. The Mickey in the short is quite possibly the furthest you could get from what he is today, as his goal throughout the cartoon is to get an unwilling Minnie to kiss him while flying the plane.
After several futile attempts, he tries to get the kiss by using force on her until she has no choice but to parachute out of the plane to escape. Mickey Mouse lusting so heavily after a kiss would be deemed bad enough by today’s standards, let alone using physical force to try and get it. Now Mickey wouldn’t be caught dead doing either activity. Soon another Mickey Mouse cartoon was made titled “Gallopin’ Gaucho” (1928), but it wasn’t until “Steamboat Willie” (1928) that the character would catch on.
“Steamboat Willie” was a complete revolution at the time in 1928. While The Jazz Singer was the first movie to use sound, it was only used sparingly throughout the film. “Steamboat Willie” on the other hand was a celebration of sound in film, acting in many ways as a technical show off. Bells chime, cows moo, steam whistles blow, and more to show off the marvel that can occur when the sound one hears directly correspondents to what appears on screen. The short became an instant success and officially launched the career of the young cartoon star.
Mickey’s appearance in the short is particularly reminiscent of a rodent, especially when compared with his later design. He has beady eyes, long tail, and lacks the trademark gloves the character is known for. His nose is more protruded from his face, while his ears are placed closer to his head giving him an overall scrappier look. Mickey is also portrayed as smaller than he’s normally shown, being significantly smaller than a cow.
While Mickey is shown to still be fairly happy-go-lucky, he’s not innocent kind fellow the public now knows. He pulls a cat’s tail repeatedly with the intention of getting it to cry out, simply to contribute to his impromptu jam band. Mickey laughs and grins almost roguishly, taking immense delight in what is visually causing the cat pain. He even swings the cat around and around, until throwing the animal carelessly across the room to move on to his next victim. Mickey is clearly abusing the animals he’s supposed to be taking care of. The cartoon ends with Mickey being mocked and laughed at by a parrot to which he responds by throwing a potato he was peeling at the bird, knocking the creature into the water.
Mickey then listens closely to hear the off screen sound of the bird struggling in the water only to burst out in laughter at the bird’s misfortune. Compared to the tame Mickey that the character later turned in to, it’s shocking to see he originated as a sort of sadistic fellow. Yet ironically, Mickey looks more innocent than ever as he throws his cares away, making musical instruments of the various animals around him. To kids, Mickey was a representation of fun and excitement. He turned whatever job he had into an entertaining adventure, even if that meant getting in trouble sometimes. The mouse had a distinct personality that seems to be lacking in the goody-two-shoes of today.
The genres of Mickey’s early cartoon ranged greatly from short to short, with everything from prison movie spoofs to war satires to a surrealist nightmare. Though each cartoon shared a similar sense of humor and fun. That is except for the 1933 short “The Mad Doctor”, which features Pluto being kidnapped by an evil scientist who attempts to detach the dog’s head in order place it on top of a chicken’s body to “find out if the end result will bark or crow or cackle”.
Mickey enters the Mad Doctor’s lair, avoiding booby trap after booby trap, and even fighting off an army of skeletons until he himself is caught and nearly sawed in half. In the end it turns out the whole experience was a dream, but nonetheless the short is quite terrifying for what was thought of as children’s fare. In the Journal of Popular Film and Television professor Rick DeCroix said that the short was, “perhaps the first animated horror film played more for chills than laughs – in fact, it was so stark that British censors deemed it unsuitable for viewing by children.” Even many theatres in the U.S. banned the short, refusing to allow such scary material to be shown to young kids.
More Mickey Mouse cartoons continued to be produced at an increasing rate, as the character grew more and more popular. But with newfound popularity came increasing demands to make Mickey Mouse a more wholesome character for the later half of the 1930s. In his book Art of Walt Disney from Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms artist and popular culture studier Christopher Finch writes:
“Mickey … had become virtually a national symbol, and as such ‘he was expected to behave properly at all times. If he occasionally stepped out of line, any number of letters would arrive at the Studio from citizens and organizations who felt that the nation’s moral well-being was in their hands… Eventually he would be pressured into the role of straight man.”
The character of Mickey had become too big to continue his troublemaker ways; it soon became apparent the character would have to change to accommodate his sudden fame. In 1928 he was groping and physically touching Minnie Mouse (“Plane Crazy”) but by 1936 Mickey would settle for a handshake with Minnie to show their feelings (“The Rival”). Many of Mickey’s characteristics were transferred to new characters such as Donald Duck and Dippy Dawg or better known as Goofy. Three began to share more cartoons together with Mickey being the rational upstanding one, while Donald and Goofy were the silly more outrageous characters. Donald would eventually start appearing in more cartoons than Mickey, as the angry duck provided funnier material than the moral mouse. But the change in Mickey’s character didn’t come suddenly; rather he gradually reformed his mischievous ways.
Mickey’s occupations also began to change as he moved from the countryside and barnyards to take on more cosmopolitan positions. He soon started playing polo (“Mickey’s Polo Team”) and more upscale activities, partially based on Walt Disney’s newfound interests. By the forties Mickey had moved into the suburbs and wear more sophisticated clothing. In cartoons like the 1942 short “Mickey’s Birthday Party” he can be seen donning a snap-brim hat with red ribbon, a button down blue shirt, and a cane.
As Mickey’s personality and profession began to change so did his appearance to reflect his new image. Professor Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard did an extensive study of the character from a biological artistic perspective concluding the following:
“He has assumed an ever more childlike appearance as the ratty character of Steamboat Willie became the cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom. By 1940, the former tweaker of pig’s nipples gets a kick in the ass for insubordination (as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia). By 1953, last cartoon, he has gone fishing and cannot even subdue a squirting clam. The Disney artists transformed Mickey in clever silence, often using suggestive devices that mimic nature’s own changes by different routes. To give him the shorter and pudgier legs of youth, they lowered his pants line and covered his spindly legs with a baggy outfit…His head grew relatively larger- and its features more youthful.”
The character of Mickey Mouse eventually began to physically reflect the audience Disney started aiming at. Mickey began to shift into the position of being a peer of the children who watch him. He no longer was a rodent, but rather a child just like the kids who wanted Mickey Mouse merchandise.
1953 was the last theatrical Mickey Mouse short and it wouldn’t be until two years later that the character would reappear, this time in the form of the television show The Mickey Mouse Club. The series was a variety show that consisted of live action serials, newsreels, and classic Mickey cartoons. It was an attempt to cash in on a new audience of young children who hadn’t yet seen vintage Mickey shorts. This is a format that would be replicated several times over the next few decades as the show reappeared in the ‘70s and the ‘90s, with each episode repacking old cartoons. This displayed a substantial shift in the character as the cartoons in theatres had a universal appeal, enjoyed by both adults and children, but The Mickey Mouse Club was clearly meant for kids only. From this point on Mickey was a children’s only character, and his new roles would display this. The Mickey Mouse Club also is the start of the character as an educational tool as a many of the show’s non-cartoon segments were aimed at teaching kid’s valuable lessons and morals.
New Mickey Mouse material was scarce throughout the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties with the only major Mickey film/TV appearances being three theatrical shorts and one direct to video movie. Mickey during this period became less of a character and more of a corporate icon. He appeared allover the money machine theme parks Disneyland and DisneyWorld, along with finding his face plastered onto all kinds of merchandise and logos that pertained to the Disney company.
During the 2000s the character of Mickey Mouse was finally put back into production with the creation of the show Mickey Mouse Works. The series was made up of all new shorts featuring Mickey and friends, picking up right where the Mouse left off in the ‘50s, living in a comfortable suburbia. The show didn’t last long, being taken off air in the late 2000. Instead the shorts were reformatted to fit a new series, House of Mouse, which put Mickey as the head of a dinner theatre where all the Disney animated characters gathered to hang out and watch cartoons.
Half the show consisted of new material with Mickey running the club, while the rest was shorts from either Mickey Mouse Works or vintage color cartoons. The character also appeared in four direct to DVD movies, two of which being spin-offs of The House of Mouse and the other two being Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas (2004) and The Three Musketeers (2004). Despite being placed in all these different settings they all stuck to the recent version of Mickey Mouse, boring and calm as ever, with the character forced to play the straight man to all the crazy people around him
Mickey’s main cartoon appearance today is limited to the preschooler series Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, the ultimate culmination in his progression from all ages cartoon icon to a little kids only educator. The character’s animation is slow and careful, trying to remain at a pace three year-olds can easily follow. Unlike The Mickey Mouse Club this series contains no classic Mickey shorts, being entirely educational based programming disguised thinly behind a narrative. But there is no disguising the fact that the show is limited in its appeal, having a clear audience of three to five year-old toddlers. Mickey Mouse, a character that previously climbed dangerous mountains, explored the jungles of Africa, and fought off hordes of skeletons, barely shares any form of resemblance with the great mouse he once was.
As the character became non-existent in film and watered down within television during the aughts, the area Mickey Mouse’s character became most interesting lies in the realm of video games. While he has appeared in them since the early eighties, it wasn’t until the release of the 2001 Square Enix game Kingdom Hearts that the character began to be recognized as a true video game icon. The Kingdom Hearts series is a complex combination of Disney characters mixed with the Final Fantasy video game franchise.
The game takes place in a universe that consists of numerous worlds, typically based off a Disney film or a set of Disney/Final Fantasy characters. A large portion of the main storyline is put into motion when the ruler of the prominent world known as Disney Castle disappears in an attempt to rid the universe of oncoming darkness. The ruler is, of course, none other than King Mickey Mouse.
Throughout much of the first game Mickey himself is rarely seen, but his trademark mouse ears icon is displayed frequently as the symbol of Disney Castle. The characters talk about how great and powerful the King is, but he only makes one actual appearance at the very end. At the time Disney wasn’t quite sure how the game would turn out, and as such was weary of having him be a main character, so he was allowed to appear in one scene only. Due to the game’s overwhelming success the character became more significant its numerous sequels and spin-off titles, especially in the 2006 game Kingdom Hearts II. It’s in this title that the character attempts to prove himself a true video game hero, displayed as powerful and valiant. He defeats enemies in a single blow, strikes fear into bosses eyes, and is all around a truly strong threat. Yet Mickey’s personality remains happy and upbeat as ever. Squire Enix was able to use his goody two-shoes personality to put a new twist on the character.
Mickey’s regular clothes in the Kingdom Hearts universe is a play off his traditional clothing, keeping with the basics of white gloves, redshirt, and yellow boots. They then added extra details such as the straps on his shoes, tinges of silver and black, along with large zippers to try and give a slightly more complex, mature look. Though a lot of the time spent with Mickey Mouse occurs when he’s dressed in all black, wearing a cloaked hood that is the trademark of a mysterious organization within the game. This is how the character looks when fully reveled for the first time in Kingdom Hearts II, being an effort to make the character look cooler and more stylish then he’s typically portrayed. The game establishes right away that while he may still be Mickey Mouse, this isn’t the same guy that teaches math on television. This version isn’t quite a radical overhaul, but rather a step in the right direction to bring the character back to his hero, adventurer roots.
The radical overhaul in Mickey’s character would actually occur four years later in the 2010 release of the video game Epic Mickey; Disney’s first big attempt in years to completely reinvent and redesign the character for a new, contemporary generation. With this the company itself has recognized that the character has become out of touch with current audiences, so what better way to began a character’s modernization than by making the reintroduction first occur in the newest medium of storytelling, video games. Epic Mickey is a much darker take on the character that has more in line with the mouse of old than the currently familiar suburban incarnation.
The story involves Mickey breaking into a wizard’s workshop, making a mess of paint on the model of a magical land the wizard created. He accidentally spills paint thinner allover the world when trying to clean his mess up, and runs away before the wizard can return to catch him in the act. Years go by with Mickey being carefree, not thinking about the trouble he created until the day a mysterious creature pulls Mickey back into the workshop and drags him into the model world. The world is now known as The Wasteland and is where cartoon characters disappear to when forgotten by society.
While Mickey Mouse appeared in new shorts and adventures over the years, those he left behind ended up populating this abandoned world. The leader of this land happens to be none other than the original forgotten character himself, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, being his first official appearance since 1943. Mickey is forced to face the consequences of his selfish actions that caused the destruction of their world, going around helping old faces that once were his friends, but due to forgotten time feel more like strangers.
The gameplay itself revolves around the idea of using paint, which creates, or thinner, which destroys, to solve puzzles. This allows the gamer to directly decide whether Mickey is a hero or an anti-hero. Mickey never can go as far as to truly harm another character, but he can choose the easy way out or be selfish to better himself over others. This lets the game act as a bridge between the old mischievous Mickey Mouse and the righteous modern Mickey. The character’s art design reflects this combination, as he is a mixture of both the original and the more current Mickey. The rest of the game’s artwork is distinctly dark and dreary, which represents the studio’s attempts to inform consumers Mickey isn’t just for kids. He can be a mature character, caught up in a question of morality and the tribulations that come with fame and leaving friends behind.
Epic Mickey is a good start, but just one game isn’t enough. Disney is going to have to be more aggressive if they hope to keep the character relevant as the new millennium’s teen years soon kick in. The leash needs to be pulled of the character and he must be promoted as more than just a corporate mascot. The greatest step they could take would be to finally release a feature-length Mickey Mouse film. In the eighty plus years the mouse has been around he has never had his own full-length feature. He’s appeared in parts of movies, such as with Fantasia (1940), along with Fun and Fancy Free (1947), but never a whole film.
The main fear has always been that if a Mickey movie came out and performed poorly it would reflect badly on the character, harming his image. But it appears the company is beginning to change their mind as news broke in March of 2011 that such a movie might happen, as long time Disney animator Burny Mattinson revealed he’s been working on a pitch for a film staring Mickey Mouse, along with his friends Donald and Goofy. Such a film is exactly the major kick-start the character needs. It would allow a true fresh start to the largest audience possible.
Mickey Mouse has evolved and changed over the years, but the public’s love for the character seems to never go away. One can’t be certain what exactly Mickey’s future holds, especially as the character’s copyright finally expires in 2023, meaning unless Disney finds a way of interfering then the cartoon icon will enter public domain. Disney is desperate to make the character relatable to all ages again, and it seems the key is to reevaluate what once made him so great. Mickey Mouse is the most versatile cartoon character in history and there’s a reason he has lasted so long. Mickey has survived eighty plus years remaining in public consciousness, and it isn’t hard to believe that with a few adjustments he’ll survive another eighty more.
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