The success of Disney stems in part from Walt, in part from the artists who create Disney movies, and in part from Mickey Mouse. As a matter of fact, Mickey Mouse is the most important contribution to the rise of animation in general, because his worldwide popularity in the early 20th century helped give Walt the finances he used to advance the medium with films like Three Little Pigs and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt never wanted us to forget that “it all started with a mouse.”
After Walt lost the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal, he set out to create another cartoon star, and Mortimer Mouse was the character he came up with (his wife Lillian told him Mickey was a better name).
It was hard to convince distributors that there was anything special about this character since funny animal cartoons were all over movie theaters in those days, but thanks to the creative talent Walt hired, and the idea Walt had to make Mickey’s first theatrically released cartoon Steamboat Willie use sound (which was rare) Mickey Mouse became an international star on the level of Charlie Chaplin and he has appeared regularly in Disney’s films, TV shows and theme parks ever since, not to mention on every product known to man.
Speaking of Chaplin, Mickey was very much a Chaplin-esque figure: sometimes naive, sometimes sly, sometimes cowardly, sometimes courageous, and always getting bullied by characters like Pete in his short films. However, Mickey always comes out on top, and his positive attitude in the face of adversity speaks to his wide appeal.
And of course without Mickey Mouse there would be no Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Chip ‘n’ Dale, and other classic characters that we can’t imagine not existing.
It’s way too monumental a task to follow Mickey’s career from beginning to end, so I am going to point out ten of the most memorable moments from his career.
1. Steamboat Willie (1928)
This cartoon by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks paved the way for the Disney company’s world conquest. Other cartoon shorts had used sound before, but Steamboat Willie was the most creative. It was such a phenomenon when it was released that audiences wanted to watch it again and again, forcing projectionists to restart the movie immediately after it ended. The story was simplistic, but the novelty of its creative use of sound has made it an enduring classic.
2. The Band Concert (1935)
Directed by Wilfred Jackson (The Old Mill, Night on Bald Mountain), many film historians site this cartoon (the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to be in color) as the best Mickey Mouse cartoon and one of the best animated shorts of all time. No surprises there since it is endlessly enjoyable. It is basically a series of gags about Mickey’s struggle to conduct a symphony orchestra amidst such hurdles as annoying insects, a tornado, and Donald Duck’s independence as an attention-seeking flutist.
3. Thru the Mirror (1936)
Directed by David Hand (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi), Thru the Mirror is my personal favorite of the Mickey Mouse shorts. Inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Mickey dreams of entering the world in his mirror and has a series of surreal encounters with living household objects that range from dangerous to friendly. The animation is equally amazing and the entire short is an outstanding delight among Mickey’s filmography.
4. Runaway Brain (1995)
I was born in 1989 and I grew up not only watching Disney videos but watching The Disney Channel, and those two things were my introduction to most Disney shorts, so the 1995 cartoon Runaway Brain was the first time I was able to experience the hype of the release of a new Mickey Mouse cartoon. This unique short film directed by Chris Bailey (Clerks: The Animated Series, Kim Possible) features a plot involving Mickey getting his brain switched with the brain of a monster created by a mad scientist.
5. Get a Horse! (2013)
Directed by Lauren MacMullen, this short that everyone saw before the movie Frozen in 2013 was a highly entertaining blend of hand-drawn animation and CGI that evoked Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. as Mickey, Minnie and friends battled Pete by jumping in and out of the screen.
6. Fantasia (1940)
The Sorceror’s Apprentice segment from Fantasia directed by James Algar would be my favorite Mickey short if it were released on its own. It is by far the best part in the entire film. I would even say that Mickey Mouse has never appeared in a film since Fantasia that has surpassed The Sorceror’s Apprentice in terms of artistry and brilliance. I could go on, but I will save my praise for another blog.
7. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Talk about memorable! As an animation nerd, the first time I saw Mickey Mouse appear on screen at the same time as Bugs Bunny in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit was one of the most surreal moments of my life, as shocking as it is unlikely, and as memorable as it is unlikely to ever happen again.
8. Mickey’s Mouse Works (1999)
Inspired by Runaway Brain, Disney decided to make a new television series that featured brand new cartoons starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto and others, and it was largely successful. Many of the shorts from Mickey’s Mouse Works (and later House of Mouse) surpassed the old ones by having snappier comedic timing.
9. Mickey Mouse (2013)
A new series of Mickey Mouse cartoons which had their debut on Disney Channel went back to the spirit of the old Mickey cartoons but with the sensibility of a Nicktoon. The blend is initially odd, but they succeed as entertaining cartoons in their own right. It took me a while to even want to give these cartoons a chance, but I was eventually won over by the stylish art and the lasting appeal of Disney’s characters.
10. Kingdom Hearts (2002)
Speaking of odd blends, the video game series that combined Disney and Final Fantasy was the weirdest idea, but it proved to be a highly engaging real time role-playing game that has spanned almost every major game system. If it were made by any other developer than Square Enix, Mickey Mouse would have probably been a playable character, but his whereabouts in the first game are shrouded in mystery and he is actually one of the last characters in the game you meet, which made it all the more special when you finally had a chance to talk to him.
No matter where you go, you can’t escape the image of Mickey Mouse. He’s not just the icon for Disney. He’s the icon for the world. Sometimes his image is used to represent corporate America and sometimes it’s used to represent the optimism and fighting spirit of the nation, but his appeal as a symbol will always remain.