This review originally ran March 19, 2022, in conjunction with the film’s world premiere at SXSW.
It is easy, perhaps, to take Mickey Mouse for granted, both as an icon and a character. His image, as Disney parks fans will tell you, is everywhere: on the sides of buildings, in nooks and crannies, on t-shirts, in flower beds, up in the clouds.
Though omnipresent, Mickey has had a rich, tumultuous journey, on and off screen, and Jeff Malmberg’s new documentary “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse” takes viewers on a winding road through Mickey’s almost 100-year-old journey.
In 1928, a pioneering little critter manned a river steamboat in a charming little animated musical titled “Steamboat Willie” — the first of its kind to be set to sound. He was industrious, charming and whimsical, without being conniving, precocious or silly. This was Mickey Mouse, who’d been previously introduced in a short called “Plane Crazy,” under the production of the Walt Disney Company, animated by Disney himself and Ub Iwerks.
Malmberg (“Marwencol”) punctuates his documentary with the creation of a new Mickey short, spearheaded by animators Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn and Randy Haycock. The minute-long short features Mickey walking down a hallway, reminiscing about posters of shorts from his past, before he’s sucked into a vortex and transformed into all the various iterations of himself. It’s a convenient framing device, and Goldberg, adorned with colorful Mickey-patterned button-ups, is a cheerful guide to the iconic creature. His enthusiasm for the project, as well as the remarkable history of Mickey, is infectious.
“Mickey” presents Mickey as an allegory for his creator, Walt Disney, and as a stand-in for the “average American.” He (Mickey or Walt, take your pick) began as an enterprising and eager figure from the humble Midwest, acting the role of scrappy businessman and inventor, father and friend. Disney’s first character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was taken from him, which allowed Mickey to act as a type of redemptive venture: the little mouse that could.
The film explores the progression of Mickey’s animation — from a simplistic concoction of circles to something more fluid and complex — and character over the course of his first 50 years. Through the Depression, Mickey becomes more resourceful and generous. Rebecca Cline of the Walt Disney archives suggests that Mickey had a more material effect besides keeping up morale: “There were a couple of companies on the verge of bankruptcy, and Mickey Mouse saved them from disappearing.”
In the 1940s, Mickey went to war. After that, he moved to the suburbs. Through archivists, researchers, artists and a handful of unnamed Mickey fans, we learn how Mickey stood for America, its ups and downs, its business spirit. The evolution of the little mouse who could glosses over the domination of Disney as a corporation, the gluttony of its toy manufacturing, and the growing emptiness of Mickey. Perhaps Mickey is such an endearing piece of iconography, in part, because he’s a blank slate. He is amenable and open to change with the times, the quintessential bootstrap-yanking young man.
Malmberg’s documentary is quick to gloss over rough patches in both Mickey and Disney’s shared histories. In lieu of touching on Walt Disney’s history of anti-Semitism, Malmberg instead shows drawings of Mickey from Polish concentration camps during the Holocaust, as well as pages from the French artist Horst Rosenthal’s comic “Mickey au Camp de Gurs” (“Mickey Mouse in the Gurs Internment Camp”), a 15-page booklet that shows Mickey in the camps alongside other Jewish prisoners under threat of being Jewish himself. The piece ends with Mickey deciding not to be Jewish, redrawing himself as escaping the camp, and walking back to America. In the documentary, this is framed as “Mickey disappears.” (Horst, on the other hand, was executed.)
Though “Mickey” is not interested in the redemption (or renewal) of Walt Disney, neither does it suggest that Mickey himself needs any type of rehabilitation. He is a character who tries; he is always trying, and when he fails, he does so in the spirit of trying. In 1989, Disney threatened litigation toward three day-care centers in Hallandale, Florida, whose outer walls had been painted with larger-than-life murals of Mickey and friends. To the disappointment of the children at the centers, the copyrighted cartoons were removed. “[I]t’s totally ludicrous,” Erika Scotti, one of the centers’s directors, said at the time. “I’d rather have everyone’s energy going to […] a new curriculum.”
This incident is framed a bit differently by the Disney archivists. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve handled every situation perfectly, but there’s really no precedent for a creation like this when it comes to copyright. Mickey’s one of the most popular characters in the world, and there’s really no question we’ve had to learn as we go,” Cline explains. It’s a non-apology, a rare acknowledgment that Disney has misstepped. But these are the issues that arise when a character belongs to both everyone and a profit-centered conglomerate. If Mickey is really a creature of the people, why is Disney allowed to deny anyone use of his image?
In the end, we get a glimpse at the short in progress, the century of Mickey whirling through time. It’s a charming if not simple cartoon, lacking in personality as it doesn’t linger long enough on one Mickey to indulge the viewer. But of course, for one looking for more of Disney’s iconic mouse, “Mickey” argues that all you have to do is look out your window, and sooner or later, there he’ll be.
“Mickey: The Story of a Mouse” premieres on Disney+ Nov. 18.