Immediately recognizable to both the young and young-at-heart the world over, Mickey Mouse has been an icon of joy and delight for almost 100 years. From his humble beginnings as a replacement black and white cartoon hero to his role as the beating heart of the entertainment monolith he helped to build, the road hasn’t always been smooth for Mickey–or indeed, for his creator. But despite those ups and downs, despite the passage of time and endless societal shifts and upheavals, Mickey has managed to remain one of the most beloved, most recognizable icons of all time.
New documentary Mickey: The Story of a Mouse looks to shine a light on both the character’s plentiful, well-known success stories alongside the somewhat inevitable missteps, miscalculations and failures. Of times when Disney and his ever-expanding corporation weren’t always quite sure how to use their mightiest of mice. Director Jeff Malmberg weaves together an enchanting and layered history lesson that lays out the intrinsic connection between the creation and its creator, and between the legend and the nation that he’s come to represent..
That Shelf was lucky enough to speak to Disney’s animating legends Eric Goldberg and Floyd Norman, along with Art Historian Carmenita Higginbotham, and Mickey: The Story of a Mouse’s Director Malmberg and Producer Meghan Walsh about the legacy of Mickey and just how the Animation Studio and its creative teams have managed to reinvent the character, allowing him to remain relevant for almost 100 years.
The film talks a lot about how Walt was Mickey or at least had elements of Mickey, and how Mickey had elements of Walt. Given you actually had a chance to work with both, in a way, was that something you saw too? What similarities stood out to you the most between the character of Mickey and his creator?
Floyd Norman: I was very fortunate when I was kid, back in my 20s, to have the opportunity to be in meetings with Walt Disney. That was most unusual. But that’s because I was working on The Jungle Book (1967), the film where Walt had focused his attention. So, that placed me in meetings with the old maestro himself, something I never expected to happen. But by having the opportunity to be in those meetings with Walt, I got a chance to know him a little bit better than maybe the average employee, and to realize how much Walt Disney was like his creation, Mickey Mouse. Both ordinary individuals and yet extraordinary in who they were. Incredibly optimistic. Walt was a true optimist. Walt was incredibly resourceful, as was Mickey. Scrappy. Sometimes somewhat cheeky but always a good guy. That was Mickey, and that was Walt. And when people say bad things about Walt Disney, I say you don’t know the man. Because if you know anything about Mickey Mouse, Mickey tells you a lot about who Walt Disney was. Yeah, Walt wasn’t always a perfect guy, nor was Mickey. But basically, he was a good guy. And so I had a chance to get that impression deepened as I worked with Walt Disney and realized how very much like Mickey Mouse Walt Disney happened to be. So, that was a real opportunity for me to get a chance to know the boss and to know the big star, Mickey, who was kind of like our studio mascot. Getting to really know them in a very special way.
Mickey has been transformed into so many different versions at Disney and by people around the world, like Milton Glaser in his 1968 short Mickey Mouse in Vietnam. What do you think it is about the art of Disney that makes him so ripe for use in so many different ways?
Meghan Walsh: That’s a great question. We were just chatting about how his 2D features allow a lot of flexibility in how he’s portrayed and—for artists and other innovators— in how they can use Mickey. I think also, as Carmen says in the film, [he represents] this sort of return to innocence, this return to a childhood that we want to get back as adults. I think there’s a longing there that the character represents for a lot of people. There are also some controversial and damaging images with Mickey, but he really represents so much joy and happiness. And in the end, it’s just that gut feeling that we all long to get back to.
Carmenita Higgenbotham: I think there’s also a way in which Mickey taps into a core set of fundamental emotions. That is something you can always return to. You can always access that through a kind of physical transformation, a cultural transformation. So if it’s the desire to be funny and silly, if it’s the desire to be responsible, if it’s the desire to—at least in the second half of the 20th century—to be a centring character. Not extreme at all, not engaging in behaviours that can be construed as possibly bad or punishing or wrong but rather sitting in the middle of culture. I think that’s something that also allows Mickey to be transferrable across generations and across decades.
I love Floyd’s quote at the end of the movie where he talks about how Mickey has become an integral part of people and wherever we’re headed next as a society, Mickey’s coming with us. How did working on the doc shift your perspective on the character? You’ve now spent so much time with him, his different iterations, and all of these experts. What did it leave with you in terms of appreciation for what Mickey stands for?
Jeff Malmberg: I mean I made the film over the time when my daughter was from aged four to eight. So I think that as a father it reconnected me with that idea of joy, you know. I think that kind of goes with what Carmenita says in the beginning of the film which is, you know, [Mickey is] sort of representative of the joy that we lose [as we grow older] and that we would like back. I think we can all kind of relate to that in this world. That was definitely one thing for me—to try and keep one foot on the bright side.
I had a chance to visit the animation studios back in 2013 for a preview of the new Mickey short Get a Horse. I don’t think I understood the context about why it such a big deal at the time, making the first new short in almost 20 years. But Mickey: The Story of a Mouse does a really good job of laying that out. What did it feel like to be a part of that project? To be a part of going back to the beginning, in a way, but also to be starting a new chapter of shorts for this iconic character?
Eric Goldberg: You know, first of all, I have to credit our director, Lauren MacMullan, for coming up with the idea for Get a Horse, and the fact that she was very specific as to what era she wanted to represent on film. You know we are all geeks, so she invented this idea that sat right between Steamboat Willie and The Barn Dance, you know, in 1928. So we had to unlearn everything we knew about animation. About making it fluid, about making it pliable, to make it look like it came from 1928, you know? We had to animate differently then with all the things we’d tried to perfect over the last decades. But it was great.
It was great to deal with that Mickey too, and be specific [to that time]. The other challenge, which I think the CG animators did beautifully, was that it has to be the same Mickey on screen and in front of the screen. You know, he has to be that character and that comes in the way he’s posed, in the way he moves, you know, and even in the way he’s cheated, you know? The standard issue Mickey, his ears don’t turn three dimensionally. They slide around on his head depending on the angle. They had to create ways to do that in CG that looked normal, looked like we would’ve drawn it that way. The fact that nobody questions it means they did their job very well.
As far as new shorts with the character, well I think many of us think that Mickey’s still alive. You know? It’s great to be able to handle him again. I have my favourite Mickeys, of course, and we all do an awful lot of work for the division of this studio called Creative Legacy. Mickey is often the star of that. He is just so well liked and he is so much fun to animate, you know, that we enjoy it every time out.
The film devotes a lot of time to how Mickey reflects society as times change. One story I thought was particularly effective was highlighting the often forgotten role of women in the animation of the character, especially in the ink and paint department. I loved that recognition. Were there any other stories like that that you came across that surprised you or that you didn’t know as much about? Or maybe one that you weren’t able to include in the finished film?
Meghan Walsh: Sure. I mean, I definitely think the ink and paint piece of this is so important because women are underrepresented in animation even today. We wanted to make sure they were included, because the skill that they have in bringing colour to Mickey is so—it’s crazy meticulous. I would never be able to do it. And I’m just astonished that there was this department of hundreds of women doing this and really cranking these animation cells out minute by minute.
A part that we weren’t able to fully include in the film was how Lillian, Walt’s wife, and his sister-in-law, Roy’s wife, were very involved in Mickey’s foundation. So there were always women at the point of origin for Mickey’s story. Who was helping Walt and Roy build the company? It’s their wives. It’s the women around them, you know? And I think that often does get overlooked. So there’s just very rich history of women in animation. I hope this opens the door for Disney to tell more of those stories as time goes on because there’s a lot of beautiful material there. It wasn’t just men putting pencil to paper. There were women there, too.