Mickey Mouse: Building Character

Once upon a time Mickey Mouse’s name wasn’t Mickey, and he wasn’t a mouse.

In 1927 Walt Disney, then employed by Universal Pictures, created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who looked like this:

1929oswald.jpg

Oswald was an immediate hit.

Then in 1928 Disney walked into a contract negotiation with Charles Lint, then president of Universal, thinking that he had all the leverage he needed to negotiate another installment in his favor, but instead Lint informed Disney that he had already hired most of his [Disney’s] employees, retained the rights to Oswald, and was offering to re-hire Disney only if he took a salary cut.

But Lint hadn’t been able to entice one key employee of Disney’s, a man named Ub Iwerks, the sole animator of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And it was Iwerks’s loyalty to Disney that made possible another version of the cartoon, this time conceived during late night meetings between Disney and Iwerks. The cartoon was called Mortimer Mouse, but then changed after much deliberation to Mickey Mouse.

The first two animated shorts featuring Mickey weren’t very impressive to distributors, but the third entitled Steamboat Willie was optioned and premiered in New York on November 18, 1928, and was a success with audiences, in part because of its use of sound which was synchronized with the visual action of the cartoon, using a click track (not an entirely new technique at the time but still a rarity for animation).

Disney was an early adopter of Dr. Herbert Kalmus’s Process 4 technicolor or “three strip” process, producing technicolor shorts such as Silly Symphonies and Flowers and Trees, both of which became hits in the early 1930s. Disney had an exclusive contract with Kalmus extending until September 1935, barring all other animators from using the color technique. On February 23, 1935, seven months before other animators were given access to the technology, Disney produced The Band Concert, the first technicolor short featuring Mickey (and also Donald Duck), debuting to massive success, and is still considered a breakthrough in the history of animation.

Mickey’s look had changed and evolved slightly, going from black & white to color, among other small adjustments, but it was the work of animator Fred Moore throughout the late 1930s that transformed Mickey into his more current and recognizable form—giving the mouse pupils, a tail, white gloves, and his signature red pants.

And it was in this recognizable form that Mickey made his first feature length appearance in 1940 with Fantasia.

It’s with particular interest now that we turn to Fantasia which has puzzled viewers for years, but the meaning of this experimental film becomes clear in light of Mickey’s evolution as a character and his contribution to Disney’s growing empire.

Fantasia was only Disney’s third feature film after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (a huge success) and Pinocchio (not a success), and because of the onset of World Ward II, it [Fantasia] was unable to generate a profit even though the critical response was positive. The story, as explained by Deems Taylor at the beginning of the film, is of the sorcerer’s apprentice, played by Mickey himself:

“It’s a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years—a legend about a sorcerer who had an apprentice. He was a bright young lad, very anxious to learn the business. As a matter of fact, he was a little bit too bright because he started practicing some of the boss’s best magic tricks before learning how to control them. One day, for instance, when he’d been told by his master to carry water to fill a cauldron, he had the brilliant idea of bringing a broomstick to like to carry the water for him. Well, this worked very well at first. Unfortunately, however, having forgotten the magic formula that would make the broomstick stop carrying the water, he found he’d started something he couldn’t finish.”

Here is just about the entirety of Mickey’s brief appearance in Fantasia:

There is no dialogue in Fantasia, only pieces of orchestral music set to the accompanying action of a fairy-tale-like fever dream akin to an acid trip–complete with fawns, fairies, and unicorns–with a barely coherent narrative roughly spanning the mythological and scientific creation of the universe. And the creation of the universe begins once Mickey lets loose this magic of the broomstick that he cannot turn off.

Why am I spending so much time on Fantasia of all Mickey movies?

In Fantasia, for the first time, Mickey Mouse was a clear stand-in for Walt Disney himself. Mickey’s eager seizing of the wizard’s magic tricks is a perfect metaphor for Disney’s use of technology in his films (Steamboat Willie and The Band Concert); the magic broom carries the water to the cauldron as a piece of technology would assist its creator; but when Mickey realizes he cannot turn the broom off his attempts to thwart the broom creates only more brooms, and the cauldron begins overflowing with water, and it’s out of this overflow that the rest of the movie begins to make sense as a creation myth. The overflow creates the universe. Mickey’s foibles reveal the spirit of Disney’s Universe because the spirit of every Universe is equal to its downfall, and in Fantasia Mickey’s flaw is seizing upon magic he doesn’t yet understand so he can dream. And Disney said many times, “There’s a lot of the Mouse in me.”

Mickey Mouse was the first piece of lightning Disney ever caught, financing the early years of animated shorts by treading new ground in sound and color technology, always with Mickey as the tip of the spear, until the 1940s & 50s when Disney began pioneering still a new era of animated feature films and caught many new bolts of lightning (Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, etc.). Mickey then was only a very small part of Disney’s animation, and by the late 1950s & early 60s was all but retired as a character, appearing mostly in cameos or straight-to-video animated shorts. Other than the company’s logo and forever spokesmouse, the once centerpiece of the dynasty fell into the background.

Five years after the release of Fantasia, a 1945 article in the Irish Times wrote of Disney,

“Disney has been called everything from a genius to a philosopher—and denied that he is any of them. As a matter of fact when the English novelist, Aldous Huxley, praised the philosophy of Mickey Mouse cartoons and asked Disney how he arrived at their underlying subtleties, the answer he is reputed to have received was: “Oh, we make pictures for entertainment, and after they are made the professors come along and tell us what they mean!”

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3 thoughts on “Mickey Mouse: Building Character

  1. Thank you for the enlightenment Daniel on both Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney. Your take on their joint and entwined contribution to universal entertainment and purity of enjoyment, whoever and whereever you are, cannot be ever understated

    Like

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