Sunday, September 2, 2012

Disney Canon Detour: Mickey Mouse Shorts

I'm taking a break from revisiting the Disney Animation Canon for a few weeks. You don't know what I have to do to find these movies (not much so far, but the titles that are coming are far more obscure than what we've covered so far). Anyway, taking a break from the official list doesn't mean you can't get a healthy dose of Disney animation. That's why I decided to make a little exploration of Disney shorts everytime the canon is on hold. On this first offering, we take a look at the career of Mickey Mouse. 

Mickey is a fascinating character historically speaking. He is the living proof that the Disney marketing machine is rolling at full speed. He is well known and liked by most children even if they have hardly watched a Mickey Mouse short if at all. Being the company's official mascot has make him so ubiquitous that he generates an affection on children without them really being familiar with his work. He might be as well known and popular as Spongebob Squarepants, yet kids exposure to Mickey should make him as popular as Tony the Tiger or Aunt Jemima. 

This wasn't always this way. Back in the days were animated shorts were projected regularly at your local movie screen, Mickey was one of the biggest stars around. At this point Disney and partner Ub Iweks had just left Universal Studios and his most popular character up to that time, Oswalt the lucky rabbit. Working now as independent animators, they came up with this new character, who looked very similar to Oswalt, but was another kind of rodent. Initially named Mortimer (until Walt's wife proposed a name change), Mickey Mouse's first official appearance was in the animated short 'Steamboat Willie' on November 18, 1928. 

'Steamboat Willie' was one of the first cartoons to have synchronized sound and became a huge hit upon its premiere. Both Disney and Mickey became household names quickly after. We nowadays think of Mickey as a lovable, well-meaning character that represents the family values of its parent company, but back in 1928 that Mickey sure was a rascal. He is a little bit of a trouble maker and he certainly doesn't mind inflicting cruelty on his fellow animals to play a fun rendition of 'Turkey in the straw'. This kind of antics were apparently hilarious back in the day and made Mickey one of the public's favorite characters (even Hitler was a huge Mickey fan).

Only with time would Mickey adopt a much tamer and wholesome attitude. Some first signs of his personality transformations started to appear with the arrival of two other Disney characters: Donald and Goofy. Donald's irritable personality and Goofy's silly behavior make them more prune to comedy than Mickey, who was soon paired with them in some of the studios' most entertaining shorts, in which the mouse usually played straight man to the other two. One of the most popular of those shorts is 'Lonesome Ghosts' (1937), which is often cited as an inspiration for 'Ghostbusters'.

At this point, Mickey was lacking in popularity. He was eclipsed by his co-stars he usually had to share a lot of screen-time with them. But uncle Walt was determined to bring his most beloved character back to the top. He did this with a series of films starring Mickey and a redesign that culminated in 'Fantasia'. One of such films, was 1938's 'Brave Little Tailor'.

Using the technology he had developed for 'Snow White' and his more high-minded Silly Symphonies Shorts, Walt certainly made sure 'Brave Little Tailor' looked great. And the storytelling is also very good. Here, Mickey comes off as very and funny and likable, proving why he was so popular in the first place. It is regarded as one of the best animated shorts ever made.

This cartoon and 'Fantasia' certainly helped in a Mickey resurgence during this time. But what really did it for Mickey's popularity were the shorts in which he shared the screen with his pet dog Pluto. Most of his most popular work during the 1940s were actually Pluto cartoons in which he played more a supporting role and was more constantly featured doing more down-to-earth jobs and household work instead of having big adventures. One of such cartoons was 'Lend a Paw' which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject in 1942.

That early '40s renaissance didn't last long and Mickey's popularity slipped in the following years until he became a television star in the 1950s. With reruns of Mickey Mouse cartoons and his appearances on the 'Mickey Mouse Club', he would cement his status as the well-doer we all associate with him, which has make him look like a rather boring and uninteresting character.

Sure, chances are you can find funnier shorts in Donald and Goofy's libraries, but Mickey has had such heights as 'Brave Little Tailor' and 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' that solidify his status as Disney's official spokesmouse. It is a shame Disney shorts are not as usually shown on television as Looney Tunes of Tom and Jerry, they don't deserve to be forgotten.

To close out, let me show you Mickey's last theatrical short: 1995's 'Runaway Brain', which as Mickey's very first appearance features Mickey, Minnie and Pete in a rather surreal adventure for Mickey standards. The embed video has a very good introduction by Leonard Maltin, so I'll let him talk about this one.

Remember the official canon is back on Sep. 16th. 


  1. Hi, here is a site about Disney animated shorts, creators & rarities : Secrets of productions, unmade Disney, original documents... :

  2. Thanks for the site! I'll surely use it in the futre