Sunday, November 18, 2018

Mickey Mouse Turns 90

Happy birthday, Mickey Mouse!

November 18, 1928 Mickey made his first appearance on the screen at New York's Colony Theatre in the short Steamboat Willie.  The short holds up incredibly well, retains every bit of energy it had nine decades ago and remains just as clever, creative and funny as anything in animation today.

If you've never seen Steamboat Willie, here you go:

And, of course, Mickey has not remained on just movie, TV and other screens.  I grew up with a Mickey marching record and Mickey Mouse Disco (look, I was born in '75.  Mistakes were made.).  Mickey comics with their own continuity of sleuthing and scifi have been a popular staple abroad for decades.  Throw in magazines, books, coloring books.  Toys.  Watches!  Much like Superman, getting to know a bit about Mickey Mouse's storied history as character, icon, licensed figure is a surprisingly good way to learn about recent history and get a sense of continuity to the past.

And, of course, for the past 7 decades, Mickey has been less character than corporate mascot and icon.  The everyman/ little-guy-to-root-for antics of these early episodes eventually got softened into middle-class comfort in the cartoons with Mickey starring as the straight man to Goofy, Pluto, Donald and the gang before putting Mickey on a shelf in the mid-50's and trotting him out for animation on a very irregular basis and almost never for shorts.  He lives on t-shirts and coffee mugs.  A quick walk around a Walgreens will present you with everything from Mickey pool toys to Band-Aids to greeting cards.

But that was always part of the deal.  No sooner had Mickey hit than Disney licensed the character for plush dolls and other toys.  The creation of a Mickey Mouse Club by an enterprising theater employee was bought up (and the guy hired) by Disney, and the notion of kid's participating in fandom and inclusiveness in the character/ brand was born.

a theater full of Mouseketeers in the 1930's
Here's the thing, though... it's not like the recent (and sometimes gross) rise of merchandising with characters is new for our generation or showed up with Star Wars.  The loop of merchandise and thus interest in cartoon or coloring book or whatever is all part of the deal.

Anyway, I get the skeptical, jaundiced eye people cast at Mickey as corporate mascot, or capitalist Santa.  But there's something about that ubiquity that's made Mickey a happy little spot that can turn up anywhere, like a hidden Mickey in a Disney picture or in the decor around the parks.

That's a curious bit of ubiquity, and no matter what you think of that sort of commercialism, Disney has shown the way in making some pretty good coin off a character most people haven't actually watched on TV in any real form in years.

I mean, I own a Mickey watch, and it's kinda hilarious to hear grown-assed adults get excited about seeing it in the middle of a business meeting "ooooh!  A Mickey watch!"*  I like that, while the parks are obviously cost prohibitive, Mickey adorns baby and kid stuff in a wide range of prices - Mickey belongs to no social class.

In particular, I'm a fan of the early Mickey cartoon shorts, and I'm not alone in that assessment.  In the early days, Mickey was a dynamo.  Maybe not that different from other good-hearted hellraisers that broke out of early animation, when playing with the liquid world of the cartoon was half the joy (I have opinions about how many cartoons feel like radio shows with all the jokes in the dialogue and nothing of visual interest beyond character design).  Arriving after the success of Felix the Cat and the Fleischer studios, there was precedent.  And I don't think that - for this crowd - I need to give a history of Walt's earlier attempts and how that Mickey was a last-ditch effort created on the edge of desperation.  The character was also mostly animated by Ub Iwerks, just so we make sure we give  a nod to Walt's greatest early collaborator.

But, yeah, I'm more than okay with Mickey's good-hearted changes.  The Mickey cartoons are still technically terrific, but also hang onto a charm and enthusiasm as Mickey tries to do good things (cheerfully) and tries to come out on top as the little guy that I think we need more of in popular entertainment.  I mean, I love Donald, and we all recognize a bit of ourselves in Donald with his descent into swearing and rage storms when faced with a challenge - usually of his own making - and he's a sort of Yin to Mickey's Yang.  (We may opine upon The Goof at a later date as the zen master of getting through the day and how we see our fellow man more than ourselves.)

It's deeply unfortunate that Disney has hidden the cartoons away the past couple of decades.  I don't get it.  They're better about putting them up on YouTube and whatnot these days, but after an early 00's set of DVD's that were well out of my ability to purchase at the time, they just haven't been out there for the kids.

But, lately, they've been doing better.  I'll argue that Disney animation has taken giant steps to bring Mickey back to his roots, first with Get a Horse - the retro Disney animation faux "lost film" paired with Frozen, and then with his online adventures, which are honestly totally hysterical and in keeping with the spirit of early Disney even as they play to the strengths of modern animation for screens*.  And there are plenty of offerings like Mickey's Clubhouse and other offerings via Disney Junior.

Still, it's tough to beat the vintage stuff.  Those cartoons, be it Plane Crazy or a Pluto or Mickey transversing the dimensional plane and running around in Wonderland or whatever is all worth watching.  I mean, I still think it's tough to find anything moment by moment funnier than The Band Concert, but no one is asking me.  And for wonderful spectacle, I think we all love all of Fantasia, but we all sit up a bit when The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence kicks off.

Honestly, some of my earliest memories are tied to things I still love.  Star Wars.  Superman.  Mickey Mouse cartoons.  Likely because those things are still around and present, and also because I remember the pure delight I took as a small kid in Mickey just showing up on TV, in comics, or on this wooden wall plaque I had in my room.

As a kid, we made a few trips to Disney World and The Magic Kingdom.  In the early days when it was a premium channel, my folks still got The Disney Channel so I could watch cartoons.  And, in fact, I did spend three summers working for the Disney Store between 1993-95, thoroughly enjoying my proximity to The Mouse, even if management didn't always love me.  To this day, there are a lot of plastic and plush Mickeys scattered in my stuff, and I'll confess to watching Mickey clips on YouTube with surprising regularity.

Hey, I still like that Mouse.  And I'm jazzed to wish everybody's pal a terrific 90th.  Hot dog!

*it's currently traded out for my Android watch, which I think is pretty Buck Rogers, man

**if you've not seen the Christmas episode from last year, holy cats....


J.S. said...

They were selling Steamboat Willie dolls at a deep discount at Target this weekend! Probably still a few there!

The League said...

I don't know how to tell you I have a dancing Steamboat Willie doll.