When you think of Mickey Mouse, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Walt Disney Studios. Maybe you view the cartoon character as a symbol of capitalism with a merchandising empire, or perhaps the mouse is tied to the warmth of your childhood.
But no matter what your feelings about Mickey Mouse may be, the fact is that everyone knows him, has opinions about him, and it isn’t because he is a Disney icon. The true reason why Mickey Mouse has a place in everyone’s minds, be they children, grandparents, or enthusiastic millennials with yearly Disney World passes, is for one simple reason.
Mickey Mouse has achieved something that no other celebrity or Hollywood legend has – he has marked himself as a constant (yet undefinable) symbol and is, essentially, the definition of living history. Now that may seem like a loaded statement, but once you start to unpack the famous animated figure, it becomes a solid fact that not only are the film industry’s milestones evident, but also, our progress as a society is reflected in the DNA of Disney’s main animal mascot.
In Disney Plus’s recent documentary, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, we learn that Mickey Mouse first hit the public eye in 1928, appearing in the cartoon Steamboat Willie. Mickey Mouse’s whistle and charm were undeniable, and soon he would become a sensation, and a staple in the movie scene.
Mickey Mouse shorts were soon an expected pre-movie affair in cinemas, with the documentary citing how huge stars such as Charlie Chaplin, whose films would play after Mickey’s appearance, became fans of the mouse too.
Basically, he was Hollywood’s number one ‘It star’ from the very beginning of his career, and while figures like Chaplin would go on to define generations of cinema, Mickey Mouse kept evolving and was never tied to one specific era of Tinsel Town or filmmaking in general.
Mickey’s rise to fame saw him star in several shorts throughout the decades, kickstart the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955 – which was a hit American variety TV series – and helped pave the way for the art of animation to flourish in the West.
In short, Mickey Mouse was ever-moving and changing with the times but also carrying a growing legacy of the film industry and Hollywood on his back. But his history isn’t just limited to the big screen.
Mickey Mouse’s icon status transcends Tinsel Town as he was also a societal symbol from as early as 1940. His face was championed and censored in times of conflict during World War 2 when his face and upbeat persona soon became an indirect vehicle for messages of freedom and as a mascot for the West – as a way to boost the morale of troops.
In the Disney Plus documentary, we see Mickey’s face slapped on fighter planes, and the character (alongside other Disney faces like Goofy and Donald Duck) promoting the war effort via posters, tutorial videos, and animated shorts.
The mouse was also, as mentioned above, subject to censorship in countries such as Germany, and in an absolutely heart-breaking scene in the film, we learn how the character was even present in Concentration camps, with children drawing cartoons of the Disney star.
After Walt Disney’s death, Mickey’s transition from a movie star to a symbol became more pronounced in 1966 as he took a step back from his acting career. And during the ’70s and ’80s, Mickey Mouse was almost entirely moved away from films and became more of an icon than a staple animated movie and cartoon character at all.
He was seen more as a park greeter at the Disney Land theme parks. His face was plastered on T-shirts, he was used in various artists’ work, and he morphed into yet another vehicle that embodied youth and change. But, again, Mickey’s meaning and persona are never set in stone, and after being a rebellious icon for a while after the war effort, he morphed into a symbol of capitalism and consumerism, being mentioned in iconic films such as The Godfather.
With this brief overview of Mickey’s life, you can see that even after periods in history come to a close, even when wars are resolved, and animated movies evolve from hand-drawn to CGI – Mickey Mouse has always been there.
He has lived through it all, and unlike many other pop culture phenomenons such as Betty Boop from the ’30s or Grace Kelly in the 1950s – he still hasn’t been defined for a specific quality or cemented with a constant ideal or identity.
While we all know that Mickey Mouse is technically pretty old in the back of our minds, we rarely examine what the character has been through or how he can be seen almost as a living time capsule.
In a press conference for Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, which The Digital Fix attended, director Jeff Malmberg – opened up about how shocked he was revisiting Mickey’s history himself, sharing how even he, the figure helming the project detailing Mickey’s story didn’t first grasp the true impact of the character’s past.
“You would go to Disneyland, and Mickey was there, but I didn’t really have any idea of Mickey,” Malmberg said. “I knew he was a cartoon character, but the level to which Mickey was sort of at the centre of movie culture in that early 20th century, to me, was absolutely surprising.”
“And, to see those images of three hundred kids in a movie theatre with Mickey masks on [referring to a famous picture of The Mickey Mouse Club], I just could never quite get my mind around it,” he continued.
Today Mickey Mouse is in a new era. Although he is still the symbol of Disney itself, the mouse is back to starring in cartoons too. In 2013 and ending in 2019, he starred in a new set of adventures via the animated series Mickey Mouse, and as the Documentary hints, he will be making more films and movies in due time.
So Mickey Mouse is still around, has a future but is also like a hand-drawn time capsule of experience. He was there back when our grandparents still had all their baby teeth. He was there when the world was in chaos and unrest. And still, after Covid-19, the introduction of streaming wars and social media, he has thrived.
Even if you aren’t a fan of Disney or Mickey Mouse, you still have to marvel at what the studio has achieved – a living relic that will seemingly outlive us all.
Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is now available to watch on the streaming service Disney Plus. For more animated picks, be sure to check out our guides to the best Disney movies and best Pixar movies of all time.