As he celebrates his 85th birthday, does Mickey Mouse still matter?

11.19.13 3 years ago 3 Comments

Walt Disney Feature Animation

As I mentioned in my review of Disney’s newest animated feature film, “Frozen,” there is also a short that’s going to be playing in front of the movie, and as much as I would recommend the feature, I would also urge anyone who’s an animation fan in a broad general sense to check it out for the short, “Get A Horse.”

Directed by Lauren MacMullan, the short connects the present to the past in a fascinating way, and it is absolutely essential to see it in 3D if you want to see what the filmmakers had in mind. As I watched the short, I found myself laughing a fair amount, which wasn’t wildly surprising at the time. It was only afterwards that it struck me: that might be the first time in my entire life that I have laughed out loud because of something that Mickey Mouse did.

Animation is one of my favorite things about the existence of movies. I cannot overstress how much I love the entire idea of animation, and from childhood on, I have watched anything and everything I could. I spent many of my childhood years in Florida, close enough to Walt Disney World that we went as often as eight or nine times a year. It’s easy to see how large a shadow Disney animation has cast over the entire art form, and there is no denying that Mickey Mouse is an icon, instantly recognizable around the world.

The simple truth when I was younger, though, was that Warner Bros. cartoons were simply funnier than Disney’s cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, Porky Pig… I’m not even sure I could count all the times those characters have made me howl. With Disney’s short cartoons, I can enjoy watching them because the artistry is so gorgeous, but aside from Goofy, there are very few of those cartoons that I re-watch simply to enjoy them.

Mickey starred in over 130 films, and many of his shorts were nominated for Academy Awards, including 1942’s winner, “Lend A Paw.” He was seen in comic books, comic strips, on TV, and as recently as “Epic Mickey 2,” starring in major video game titles. He has been the face of the studio, alongside Walt Disney himself, as long as he’s been in existence. But why? What made Mickey such a stand-out?

He was originally designed to replace Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, Disney’s earlier creation, and it was a pretty direct response to Disney’s fury over losing the legal rights to Oswald. Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney tossed character designs back and forth, trying dogs and birds and cats and cows before they finally landed on the idea of a mouse. In his earliest designs, Mickey is the very model of simplicity, a series of interlocked circles. His body was, in the style of many of the cartoons of the day, all “rubber hose.” From the moment “Steamboat Willie” was released, Mickey was in pretty much constant redesign, evolving slowly but surely into the version of the character that is imprinted on roughly 10 zillion products at all times these days.

What I find fascinating about his continued presence on all things Disney is that Mickey isn’t particularly active as a character, which makes me wonder what kids think of him in general. I can’t use my own kids as an example because they’re exposed to more media than most people thanks to the ridiculous library of films we have in the house. They’ve seen old black-and-white Mickey cartoons and they’ve seen the color cartoons, and they’ve played the “Epic Mickey” games and they’re actually big fans of “Fantasia.” They are very aware of him as a character.

And given a choice? They put on Bugs Bunny cartoons, too.

So why is he such an important symbol for Disney? It all comes down to the company’s early days, when Walt was determined to carve out something for himself. He’d just been screwed over by Universal, and he had to figure out a way to make a splash quickly. He produced three Mickey Mouse cartoons before he finally managed to land a distributor for “Steamboat Willie,” which was a direct parody of Buster Keaton’s monster hit “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”, released earlier in the same year. Get your head around that… Disney, a company that has been brutal about doing everything they can to legally stop people from using their characters in parodies, exists largely because of a direct parody of another film.

Disney managed to premiere Mickey at just the right moment, and “Steamboat Willie” benefitted enormously because it was a sound cartoon just as films were starting to make the cross-over. It wasn’t the first cartoon to use sound, but it was a hit at least in part because it was part of a break-through moment for film as a whole. It kicked off a wildly successful run of cartoons, and by 1932, the official Mickey Mouse fan club topped one million members. Very quickly, though, Disney animators started to realize that the more popular Mickey got, the more protective they became of what he could or couldn’t do, turning him from a character into a symbol. That process accelerated once television came into the picture, and “The Mickey Mouse Club” became a sort of catch-all way to share Disney material with a new audience at home.

One of the legacies of Mickey Mouse that is most significant has to do with copyright law. Passed in 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act it modified and extended the length of time a character could be legally protected. The reason for the law being passed led to many people calling it at the time “the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” It was the second time a law had been changed or modified to allow Disney to extend their corporate hold on their most recognizable creation. There are so many factors in play when discussing copyright law that I won’t even try to sort it out here, but I think there is value to the public domain just as I think the actual creator of something should have legal recourse to protect their own work.

Disney’s always gone too far, though. I remember when they sued a nursery school in Tampa near where we lived because they had painted Disney characters on the brick side of the building. I understand that they “had” to pose the legal challenge because that’s part of the process of keeping a trademark registered. You can’t let anyone get away with anything or that becomes a precedent when you try to challenge something else. But suing a nursery school? Really? That’s like something Peg-Leg Pete would have done in those ’30s cartoons.

Here’s why “Get A Horse” matters to Disney, beyond just being an entertaining short film. There will come a point where even Disney is unable to extend the law even further, and legally, anyone will be able to do anything they want with Mickey Mouse. At that point, there is only one way the company will be able to retain any authority over the character, and it’s the only way that matters. It’s something that Lucasfilm and Marvel and any major IP generator has to understand. If you want to own a character, then you have to tell better stories about that character than anyone else. “Get A Horse” is a canny use of the traditional appearance of early Mickey Mouse shorts mixed with cutting-edge technology, and that’s exactly what Disney has to do if they want to keep the character interesting for audiences. Here’s a clip that appeared yesterday over at the Huffington Post:

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Mickey Mouse is a huge part of Disney’s history, and 85 years in pop culture is nothing to sneeze at. But if he’s going to matter to anyone aside from copyright lawyers as the company moves forward, then they have to make him an active character again, something more than a keychain design or a souvenir hat. If he’s going to matter to audiences for another 85 years, that begins the same place it began on November 18, 1928.

Entertain us. It’s just that simple.

“Get A Horse” will be seen in front of “Frozen” in theaters starting November 29, 2013.

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