Receiving its world premiere at SXSW 2022, Jeff Malmberg’s exhaustively-researched documentary explores the history of the little animated mouse that has touched lives all around the world for more than 90 years.
When Mickey Mouse was created by Walt Disney in 1928, it set off a phenomenon that continues to resonate to this day. Arguably the most recognizable and enduring cartoon character in history, he was to be called Mortimer until Disney’s wife Lillian gave him some excellent advice — and the mouse was rechristened Mickey.
Not only did Mickey form the keystone of what would become the sprawling Disney empire, he inspired some remarkable “firsts” since he was introduced in the cartoon Steamboat Willie, but Mickey: the Story of a Mouse goes back even further, describing how Disney, as a boy in Missouri, first began drawing his characters and dreaming of his future. Later, a dispute with Universal Pictures over an earlier character he’d created, Oswald the Rabbit, turned out to be a happy coincidence. It fired an independent streak in Disney, who was motivated to create his own production and animation company, and the character of Mickey Mouse was born.
Cheerful and optimistic. Mickey served as a mouse-sized allegory for Disney and the way he wanted to present himself. Leave it to Donald Duck to be the character with the explosive temper.
Mickey: the Story of a Mouse provides a decade-by-decade overview of the character, and how he helped Disney to create the first full-length animated feature, Snow White. The short The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was expanded into the ambitious Fantasia, and it was to Disney’s eternal disappointment that it was a failure at the box office. Here, the film makes fascinating side trips to show how these masterpieces were created. It makes one wish that there was a documentary devoted strictly to his animated features and their development.
Over the years, Mickey survives the Depression in the 1930s, goes to war in the 1940s and becomes a married “family man” in the conformist ‘50s. He doesn’t transform into a flower child in the ‘60s, but he does get his own disco album in the gaudy 1970s. Breaking from tradition, though, his later television incarnations became wilder and the character more jagged to appeal to the kids who were raised on Ren and Stimpy.
The extensive licensing and merchandising of the mouse is also depicted — everything from toys to comic books and television shows. Disney, the corporate giant, just keeps gobbling up the culture. The looming shadow of Mickey also hangs over Disneyland, and interviewees recall their first visits to the theme park as children when they thought, as their hearts pounded with excitement, “I’m going where Mickey lives!”
The film is packed with archival materials that are both enlightening and fascinating, and contained in this footage is the good stuff that Mickey enthusiasts want to see.
Disney animators Eric Goldberg, Randy Haycock and Mark Henn almost reverently describe the influence the mouse had on their careers. As they draw the character, they describe the changes — some big, some infinitesimal — that have been made to him over the years. This is all made clear by a glimpse of their Mickey in a Minute, a new animated short that rounds out the documentary. It shows the various incarnations of the mouse in the space of 60 seconds.
Those who are looking for dirt on Mickey and Disney need to look elsewhere. Although Malmberg does touch on some of the less savory aspects (Mickey and the Holocaust; day care centers being sued for having Mickey’s likeness painted on their buildings), the film is a steadfastly upbeat look of a character that is steadfastly upbeat himself. And that’s the way Walt would have wanted it.
Mickey: the Story of a Mouse is scheduled to premiere on Disney+ later this year.
Feature photo: Mickey walks down Main Street USA at Disneyland (Mortimer Productions).