So, this “little thought experiment” I came up with in January was supposed to take only a few months, and ended up spanning all of 2015. Usually, a delay like that would embarrass me, but this time I think it’s sort of nice. Bookending the year with the start to and completion of a series that I am proud of feels gratifying, especially since I am teeming with unfinished, (not-even-started) projects all the time. Looking back, I am still in 90% agreement with my choices, although I now find Spot from The Good Dinosaur to be a must-have addition to the list. Anyhoo, I’m sure there’s no one following along who’s been completely simpatico with me, and this final choice will assure many readers that I am an animation rube. However, I hope you read the entire argument as to why I believe this endearing, enduring mouse deserves the top spot. Oh boy!
“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.” — Walt Disney
NUMBER ONE: Mickey Mouse
If you are like me, an animation addict not in a hurry to get clean, I don’t think it’s possible to comprehend how different the cartooning world of a young Walt Disney, Leon Schlesinger, or Sullivan and Messmer really was. Legitimizing what was (and still too often is) seen as the purely adolescent endeavor of bringing drawings to life was something that these men and many others worked tirelessly to conquer, and no one had more lasting success than Disney at this. Mickey Mouse would prove the primary moving force in getting Walt Disney Studios off the ground and running—flying, really—as they soared into the golden age of animation.
Eighty-seven years ago, Walt Disney and his right-hand man, Ub Iwerks, needed to create a cartoon character to replace the wildly successful Oswald the Lucky Rabbit they’d inadvertently lost to Universal studios and save what was left of their fledgling animation company. Several animal prototypes were thrown out, some would be sidekick characters in
shorts to come, before the antiheroic mouse first called “Mortimer” appeared. On how Mickey came to be, Walt said, “We felt that the public, and especially the children, like animals that are cute and little. I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin- a little fellow trying to do the best he could.” This is precisely what they succeeded in creating in Mickey—he is shy, yet brave and an underdog even the most jaded viewer finds themselves inexplicably rooting for.
Walt Disney had such an exact idea for his little guy’s personality in mind, he couldn’t sign on to any voice actor and would, himself, voice Mickey until 1946. Mickey is known for his nervous, high pitched voice and his childlike exclamations, quite unlike that of Walt’s natural baritone. MM is squeaky and timid without being annoying or lackluster. He’s not saucy or sarcastic, like Bugs, not short-tempered like Donald, not boring and predictable like so many “children’s” characters. Mickey is an everyman—er mouse—whose misadventures have struck a chord with millions of fans across the globe over multiple generations. Walt said, “he’s so human, and that’s the secret of his popularity.” He is just the kind of role model, leader and friend every kid (every person, really) ought to have. Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? You know it!
Marc Davis rightly noted that a great part of Mickey Mouse’s dynamic appeal is in his perfectly circular ears and head, features now famous as “hidden mickeys” in their own right. Today we have access to the most unimaginable amount of merchandising of a character’s likeness in existence online, throughout the many Disney parks around the globe, not to mention every retail store in the free world; from Mickey ears to Mickey clothes, toys, balloons, toothbrushes, balls, shoes, pots, pans, bikes, plates, jewelry, candy, furniture and every single thing it is possible to slap his adorable little face on. As a character in the park, Mickey always has the most consistently long lines, even when the blizzard of Frozen stormed in from Arendelle. Be it his voice, his humility, or his geometrically balanced cranial design, Mick is the most recognizable, most beloved cartoon character of all time.
Only one year after the first “talkie” film, The Jazz Singer, was seen in theaters, Walt had done what other animation companies hadn’t been able to by synchronizing sound to his cartoons, including to the movements of his characters. Steamboat Willie (1928), the first cartoon with Mickey talking, was a huge success and it was full steam ahead after that. The-little-mouse-who-could’s rise to fame would soon eclipse all competitors, including Oswald and the mighty Felix the Cat. Over the century, Mickey has appeared in over 130 films, including 10 nominated for Academy Awards. In 1940, Mickey appeared in his first feature-length film, Fantasia, and in 1978, Mickey would become the first cartoon character to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
What I’ve always liked the most about watching Mickey’s cartoons is his inherent sweetness, his curiosity and his bravery. My favorite shorts include The Band Concert (1935), Thru the Mirror (1936), The Brave Little Tailor (1938), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1940), The Prince and the Pauper (1990), and Get a Horse (2013). These all showcase Mickey’s big imagination and heart, not to mention telling great stories with beautiful animation. Whatever situation Mickey gets himself into, everyone from the smallest baby (my 13 month old godson is OBSESSED with the hot dog dance Mickey does on the MMCH) to the angsty teenagers (Helloooo Epic Mickey) to the most seasoned citizen (how about them Mickey Mouse WWII films reminiscent of the good ol’ days when they knew how to make cartoons, up hill both ways in the snow) can be emotionally moved by Mickey’s antics.
I’m not sure if I’ve accomplished convincing everyone that Mickey Mouse is the most fascinating animated cartoon character of all time, but maybe this will help: Try to imagine a world without Mickey Mouse. Stop crying, it’s ok! It’s just a thought experiment! Imagine he had been merely a passing thought in the minds of two struggling entrepreneurs. He very well may have been, as so many others were, after all. It is almost as sad for me as trying to imagine a world without corn dogs, Christmas trees, kittens or rainbows. If I see Mickey’s picture out of the corner of my eye, I will stop and look at it. If I notice three circles positioned just so in drops of water on the ground or on my paint palette, I will smile. Every time. Usually, I will also take a picture of it and post it #hiddenmickey. If a new MM short comes out, I will watch it. If I see a Mickey comic book at the grocery store, I will read it. I am not saying Mickey Mouse is my favorite Disney character, (it’s Simba FYI) but I am saying that he is supremely, profoundly, undeniably fascinating to me and hundreds of millions of others across the planet.
As a matter of fact, at the rate of Disney Parks’ astronomical international growth, Mickey may even be the one to unite all nations, to bring peace to the middle east, and to end world hunger (with churros and Mickey shaped pretzels.) Or maybe that’s too far for the resilient rodent, but I do believe that spreading the optimism, kindness and idealism Mickey embodies is a good thing for a world so usually mired in despondency and hatred. Many look with skepticism or worse on the consumerism involved in taking a trip to Disneyland, but there’s a reason so many billions of guests from every continent, culture and economic class have made it a point to bring their children to the Happiest Place on Earth. Walt succeeded with his little mouse-cot as much as with his theme parks because both are founded on “the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America…with the hope that (they) will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
M-I-C, see ya real soon. K-E-Y, why? Because we like you! M-O-U-S-E.