By Jonathan Reed
Video courtesy of Disney©
“If you can dream, you can do it. Always remember that this whole thing was started by a mouse.” These are the words of pioneer, Walt Disney, and the mouse he’s referring to isn’t just any mouse, he is arguably one of the most recognisable symbols within popular culture. Mickey Mouse.
As the famed symbol for the “Happiest Place On Earth,” celebrates his 90th birthday, how has this iconic character endured the test of time and in most cases, flourished beyond all expectation?
Mickey Mouse was first conceived by Walt Disney in 1928 as a replacement for another early Disney character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Taking on the original name of Mortimer, it would be Disney’s wife, Lillian who would provide the perfect name Mickey, and the rest would be history.
That ‘history’ would take the character throughout numerous changing looks. Originally sketched similarly to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, except with a rounded nose and thinner tail, Mickey was designed out of numerous circles making him much easier to animate. This simplistic design would be described as the winning formula to the characters success, making him much more dynamic and appealing to audiences.
Appearing in his debut movie ‘Steamboat Willie’ in 1928, Disney’s creation was a phenomenal success. Numerous short films were quickly released afterwards, and Mickey became a dominating figure amongst the cartoon world.
Almost 4 years would go by until Mickey appeared in his first coloured movie as part of a film strip created for the 5th Academy Awards ceremony in 1932. Whilst this animated short film would never be shown publicly, audiences would have to wait until 1935 to see Disney’s famous Mouse in beautiful Technicolor.
Throughout this period Disney would subtly redesign aspects of Mickey's look. This would lead to the biggest transformation of the animated character in its history and would set Mickey on a course that would come to define, not only him, but the whole Disney brand itself.
In 1940 Mickey appeared in his first full-length feature, Fantastia and the mouse of old was long gone. Instead of large black eyes, they were made white with black pupils. The white skin was gone for more of a natural Caucasian look and the famed red pants with yellow buttons would reappear after Fantasia, completing the famed and universally renowned image of Mickey Mouse.
What is surprising, is the years after Fantasia’s release, Mickey’s popularity would decline due to a lack of interest in cinema and families choosing to stay at home and watch their televisions. It wouldn’t be until 1955 when he would re-emerge as a television personality in the hugely successful ‘The Mickey Mouse Club.’
It would be from here on where Mickey’s overriding popularity would remain steadfast, up until present day.
With this rich and varied history and the undying love of the character’s creator, for many, Mickey has become just as important as the Disney name. He is their prized possession and an endearing legacy to the brilliance of Walt’s creativity and optimism.
And to a point, it is this that enshrines the longevity of this most famous of mice. Everyone feels as if Mickey belongs to them, he is everyone’s friend, someone who is always happy to see you, always smiling. To some it may seem sycophantic and fake, but it is hard not to deny the bolt of excitement on seeing Mickey walk through the theme parks waving. He is in his own right, a true celebrity.
He has outlasted many cartoon creations and the explanation for this is rather simple. Mickey is unchanging. Yes, his appearance may have been tweaked through the years, but the foundation and essence is still the same as it was, all the way back in 1928 when Walt first put pencil to paper.
Mickey is hope, and that belief in an impossible dream. The very creation of him wasn’t without hardship and frustration for Disney, with many movie CEO’s mocking the profitability of a cartoon ‘rodent.’ Yet, Walt pushed on with a unedifying sense of ambition and trust. These qualities have seemingly manifested into Mickey, not by PR or abiding by the Company policies, but by the very design of him. Mickey Mouse is as much Disney, as Disney is Mickey Mouse. Both character and creator are one, synced by an uncompromising need to make people happy.
It is all these elements that have made a simple little mouse become a juggernaut in pop-culture for 90 long years. Never changing, never doubting and never not believing in the magic. Mickey has not just made history, he is history, and, in some ways, a little piece of Walt Disney left for us all to experience.