My favorite! Looking at Mickey Mouse in his first cartoons and Mickey Mouse in his most famous cartoons, it’s like looking at a completely different mouse. While Mickey always represented the everyman with relatable emotions, Mickey wasn’t as nice and likeable as he would later become. Mickey was mischievous, occasionally tempered and coy compared to the jolly, happy-go-lucky mouse that he would become. In Mickey’s very first cartoons, there are traces of the cute, jovial mouse of later years such as in Plane Crazy (1929) when he realizes his first plane didn’t work and when he copies his hair off a picture he’s seen of Charles Lindbergh. Still some moments of his early cartoons such as smoking in The Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928) and pulling a cat’s tail in Steamboat Willie (1928) to make music seem very much unlike the Mickey we are most accustomed with.
There’s a funny bit I remember from my childhood where the updated Mickey of the ‘40s and ‘50s runs into his old cartoon self from the ‘20s where the crude Mickey of the black and white early days shocks the more refined one in color. Mickey didn’t start really becoming the kindhearted one familiar with modern day audiences until the ‘30s where he started finding more of a character niche. This is evident in such early Mickey cartoons like The Gorilla Mystery (1930) where Mickey becomes a hero when he finds out that an escaped gorilla is holding Minnie captive and he goes right into rescue mode. The same year also featured The Fire Fighters (1930) where Mickey saves Minnie from a fire and Pioneer Days (1930) where both Mickey and Minnie save their wagon train from an Indian rampage. Still most of Mickey’s cartoons were used to feature music and rhythm, which was still a novelty in the early talkie days, rather than story and character. This would drastically change in 1932 where the sound craze was no longer fresh and new and Mickey’s cartoons switched to more comedy and plot, such as Mickey’s Nightmare (1932) and, most memorably, Mickey’s Good Deed (1932).
In the Depression-era, Mickey became more lighthearted and likeable and it resonated with fans who were going through tough times and enjoyed seeing a happy Mouse who remained kind no matter what his troubles were. The Mickey persona was further cemented when such characters as Pluto were added to give the series more heart as well as physical humor. The peak Mickey years where his cartoons were at their best were in the mid-to-late ‘30s where Mickey was also joined by Donald Duck and Goofy and often created a Three Musketeers-like team of folly and comedic situations. Mickey often played the straighter man to the antics of Donald and Goofy since Donald was quick tempered and Goofy was the nitwit. They needed someone more relatable and calm or else the cartoons could have just been silly without being personable. It created a certain chemistry that remains delightful to this day with such top-notch comedies as Mickey’s Service Station (1935), Moving Day (1936), and Lonesome Ghosts (1937).
With Disney putting more effort into creating the best animation available and working on creating a feature length film, Disney’s artistic side was revealed more in his shorts. While the Silly Symphonies of the time used more cutting-edge technology in realistic looking animation and vibrant use of colors, there were Mickey cartoons that benefitted with these changes as well as they were at their innovative best in the mid-to-late ‘30s as well. Looking at the animation used in such classic cartoons as Thru the Mirror (1936) and The Worm Turns (1937), Mickey’s cartoons noticeably looked better than they did just a few years ago. They were not only entertaining, but they were genuine works of art. This was never so clear as with Mickey’s immortal “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia (1940), but there were cartoons noticeably leading up to Mickey’s masterpiece. For instance, The Band Concert (1935) took the early Mickey formula of music and played up that angle to the point where the hectic occurrences on the screen matched with the music being played for even more comic effect. The wonderful Brave Little Tailor (1938) had the classic underdog and miscommunication plotline and showed the triumph of the meek in the David and Goliath style with illustrious use of color and imagination. There was also the wonderful use of visual gags and complicated animation of the inside of a clock in Clock Cleaners (1937).
Into the ‘40s, Mickey only had the occasional cartoon as his image was still being used as the company mascot, but it was Donald who was used in wartime cartoons as it was his style fitted the service comedies popular of the time. Still, Mickey was the king of delightful comedies pumped out by the studio such as the nostalgic The Nifty Nineties (1941) and the cute Lend a Paw (1941). Mickey became more of the company prototype than a presence in cartoons, but Disney’s high-point with cartoons (as well a lot of other studios) was the Mickey era and that’s not likely to ever change.
Three Recommended Underappreciated Films:
Blue Rhythm (1931)
Mickey’s Gala Premiere (1933)
Gulliver Mickey (1934)
It is hard to think of another more iconic and instantly recognizable cartoon character than Mickey Mouse. He remains Disney’s mascot and Disney remains one of the world’s biggest brands. I’ve written about the cartoons of this mouse before and of Disney as a whole, but what we’re going to be looking at here is Mickey as a character and how important his inclusion in the cartoon canon really was. Mickey may not have been the first to do things, but he was usually the trendsetter and the one who all the other studios aspired to as they wanted to create a character just as popular as Disney’s noted mouse. This eventually led to other cartoon star creations such as the Looney Tunes at Warner Bros., Tom and Jerry at MGM, and Woody Woodpecker at Universal among other classics. Mickey had big yellow shoes to fill.
While Mickey certainly helped set the trend of the “cartoon star,” without Felix the Cat and Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit before him, there would be no Mickey Mouse. It is clear how much Mickey’s cartoons and style differentiates from that of his predecessors, however. I don’t just mean the fact that Felix and Oswald were silent film celebrities, but also the fact in relation to aesthetics and design. Felix was a lively character, but he was also a character that looked archaic in style and tempo when compared to Mickey’s early cartoons. Oswald’s early endeavors such as Oh What a Knight (1927) look closer to the ahead-of-their-time style of Mickey’s early cartoons. Still, Mickey certainly carried cartoons forward quickly and noticeably. Compare Steamboat Willie (1928) to any other cartoon at the time and you’ll see what I mean. While it is safe to state that Max and Dave Fleischer also had an ahead-of-their-time style to their cartoons, Mickey was able to appear both lifelike and cartoony at the same time while the Fleischers mostly reached cartoonish highs with their exaggerated and over-the-top style. Mickey was an everyman like Felix the Cat, but in cartoons like the famous Steamboat Willie he seems full of life while not having to be too exaggerated or silly.
Mickey’s everyman was ideal for interacting with the goofy world around him. He was able to take advantage of his surroundings while also neither blending into his backgrounds nor being out-of-place in them. For example, Mickey interacts with a group of orphan kittens in Mickey’s Orphans (1931) all of which are drawn to look like cat-versions of Mickey himself. They may look like him, but they don’t act like him and much of the cartoon is Mickey and his dog Pluto reacting to their shenanigans. This idea of having Mickey play off his environment was the fuel that kept his cartoons going as Mickey would interact with different locations and ideas as any curious person would, hence the everyman. It could be something simple like Mickey interacting with Minnie and Pete with a construction backdrop in Building a Building (1933) or as out-there as Mickey interacting with a bizarre world that takes place inside a mirror in Thru the Mirror (1936). Both classic cartoons are directed by David Hand proving that Mickey was able to fit into any idea a director had no matter how different it was.
The black-and-white and early color eras of Mickey cartoons are considered his golden era. Some cartoon historians even argue that Mickey’s first venture into color, The Band Concert (1935), is his best outing in short cinema. Mickey’s potential for cartoon magic grew even larger in his cartoons where he got to play alongside friends Donald Duck and Goofy. No longer was Mickey following the simple “hero saves damsel-in-distress” or “hero takes on big menace” plots that were frequent in cartoons across the board, but now he was welcomed in an star trio full of slapstick comedy. This started with Mickey’s Service Station (1935) and might have peaked with Clock Cleaners (1937). In the cartoons that starred the trio of mouse, duck, and dog, Mickey was able to get in on the slapstick action with his friends and was a part of the shenanigans playing out although not quite to the extent of Goofy whose fondness for stupidity got him into all kinds of trouble which usually dragged his friends down with him.
While Mickey got to be part of the gang with Donald and Goofy, most of the Mickey cartoons with Pluto could better be described as Pluto cartoons. Pluto was a silent protagonist, but one that was more capable of being put into many different situations. Pluto was more prone to trouble as Mickey was a kind, easy-going character unlike his loyal dog. Mickey does get to have some great comedic bits in some Pluto outings like The Pointer (1939) and Squatter’s Rights (1946), but it was clear most of the emphasis was being placed on Pluto. After Mickey had such great cartoons as Brave Little Tailor (1938) under his belt, it was clear directors were growing out of favor with the iconic mouse. This was because Walt Disney held Mickey to such a high standard that after a while, he denied putting his mascot in several “silly” situations. This made directors turn to the supporting roster and even think of some new characters to add to the mix such as Chip an’ Dale rather than try to find a situation that not only suited Disney’s standards.
Mickey’s later cartoons are either simplistic or have Mickey himself play a small role. Usually he is there for plot conveniences with Pluto and others taking up most of the comedic possibilities. Mickey’s later cartoons are not discussed nearly as much as his early outings. Mickey was able to come back to favor with cartoons in the late Disney canon such as The Prince and the Pauper (1990), but he was generally out of the cartoon game once the mid-1940s hit with only occasional appearances here and there. Still, Mickey remains Disney’s most iconic character and he still holds a hefty visitor line at Disney World. When I went to Disney World, I waited in that long line to see him. Perhaps cartoons like Mickey’s Trailer (1938) are enough to build an empire on, but also perhaps Mickey’s likable personality managed to shine through whether he was still a cartoon star or not. I may have grew-up on his old cartoons, but I also knew Mickey from his merchandise including lots of my toys. I always felt like I knew him. He was so approachable. I grew-up on other cartoons too, but Mickey was the kind of cartoon star you bought as a character. He was a lot like us even if he wasn’t human and wasn’t real. Would you jump into the magical mirror if you could?
Three Recommended Underappreciated Films:
Boat Builders (1938)
Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip (1940)
The Little Whirlwind (1941)