Hello and welcome to In Too Deep Into Mickey Mouse, where I take a look at some of the more famous Mickey Mouse shorts.
So I’ve said before that I don’t think Mickey Mouse is that good of a character, that anything interesting about him has been grounded away to nothing. But is this true? Do I have a case? Well I decided that the only fair thing to do would to track the evolution of the character over 85 odd years to see where he came from and where he’s going. So join me over four weeks as I explore the question of â€œWho Is Mickey Mouse?â€
Plane Crazy (1928/1929)
So lets start at the beginning with his first short. Now I know what you’re thinking â€œPretty Boy, wasn’t Steamboat Willie his first short?â€ Technically, no. This was the short made first, so for all intents and purposes this was the production crew’s first shot at the Mickey Mouse character. And I say ‘crew’, even though one animator (Ub Iwerks) basically did all of it and at one point did 700 drawings in one day (for the record that’s 30 seconds of animation, or 1/6 of this short, in a day). He animated the entire thing in just under 2 weeks. So what do we learn about Mickey from this early endeavour?
Well I think the most important part comes almost immediately in the short. It’s when Mickey ruffles up his hair to look like â€œLindyâ€ (a reference entirely lost on me, sadly). I make mention of this for one specific reason: Can you imagine modern day Mickey Mouse doing much the same thing? Messing up his hair in order to copy someone? Hell just changing his basic look to something different (for example, the ‘punk rock’ Mickey that the company seems to like to put on pins). But that’s just one moment. The whole short is… bizarre.
Lets make no bones about it: Mickey Mouse is quite a horrible git. He’s good, yeah, but he certainly ain’t nice and he certainly ain’t the character Disney wants him to be. He isn’t everybody’s friend, he’s very much a character on his own. He steals the feathers off the back of a turkey because he wants them. He deliberately terrifies Minnie in the hopes of getting a kiss from her, and forces on her anyway when she doesn’t comply. I mean yes, Minnie rightfully leaves him for it and he gets punished for his transgressions (mostly from the plane crashing), but it’s still frightfully bizarre to see Mickey acting so…. un-Disney-like.
Or to put it another way: Can you imagine Mickey Mouse forcing Minnie to kiss him and punishing her when she doesn’t? No? Well he does in this short and it’s just wrong. It’s wrong on so many levels.
But in this short’s defence, we may not be looking at the real Mickey Mouse. A lot of what Mickey does is similar to what Oswald would do, so we could just be seeing an Oswald cartoon that became a Mickey Mouse cartoon by replacing the leads. It could just be a character imitating the old rather than doing something new.
But at the end of the day we do get the first hints of the character. I don’t like him because he’s too vindictive, too violent, too callous. He’s not so much a hero as a villain who gets punished for his wrong-doings at the end (as so he should, otherwise the character would appear unredeemable). But fortunately history doesn’t remember this short as his first appearance. No that honour goes for the next entry on our list.
Steamboat Willie (1928)
To really understand the impact Steamboat Willie had on the world, you really need to go and watch some of the shorts being made before it. The Oswald shorts are a good example. While there is music to them, the music is just incidental music. It’s like watching a movie with only the incidental music. Sure, sometimes it lines up with the main action, but other times it’s completely off. But without the sound effects you don’t have any weight to the animation, nothing to really ground it. It didn’t seem real.
Of course, this is why almost half of this short is nothing more than Mickey playing music with various farmyard animals. It’s just an excuse to have the music being played and synced up. Story is almost virtually non-existent when Minnie gets aboard the steamboat. But enough about the background, what about the character of Mickey Mouse.
Well we have a character of two halfâ€™s. It’s ironic that the famous image that came from this is Mickey at the wheel of the steamboat, when he is by no means the captain. Far from it. In fact he pretty much loses the hat right away to signify this, even though he’s always shown to have it in the promotional material. But we get to see a confident and clever Mickey Mouse that is fun to watch. Definitely laying the ground for what was about to come… but then we get to the second half.
As mentioned previously, the second half is mostly just a way of showing off how the sound-to-animation process would work. But the fact that Mickey is a bit too quick to attack other animals is unsettling nowadays. Different times have different standards, sure, but it’s not nice seeing Mickey act the way he does in this short. He’s still a character that’s very rough around the edges, acting in a way that would probably have the company happily disown it if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s so culturally significant. I mean yes, sound in animation had been done before, but this was the first time it was a real hit (and, arguably, saved animation as a genre).
In short, Mickey is a bit too ready to engage in animal abuse. But it was early days for the mouse, as the next short did two quite revolutionary things.
The Karnival Kid (1929)
â€œHot Dogs, Hot Dogs,â€ is the very first line sprouted by one of pop culture’s greatest icons. In a voice that sounds so incredibly different from any of the others. This is mostly because it’s not Walt Disney speaking it, but by composer Carl Stalling. As such it’s a much deeper, less recognizable voice. Given how Mickey’s voice eventually went a lot higher it’s weird hearing him here.
But what’s Mickey like in this short? Well we have a little bit of progression. He’s not as cruel as when we first saw him… but at the same time his treatment of the hot dogs is bizarre to say the least. Of course this is more for the fact that the hot dogs are somehow sentient and almost want to be eaten, so make of that what you will. But he is more of a romantic in this short, more of a caring being, so that’s nice. And this is the version of Mickey that I think works best. He’s just a humble hot dog salesman who wants to get with the girl. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but he does it well enough. We definitely have the foundation of where the character will go in the future.
And the second thing the short is famous for? Well it’s a scene where Mickey lifts off his ears like a hat. It’s during this short little gag that the concept of the ‘Mickey Ears’ was first thought up. So all those Mickey Ears hats you seen around the parks? Yeah blame this short for it. But while this short is good, the next one will go down in Academy History.
Mickey’s Orphans (1931)
This has the honour of being the first Mickey Mouse short to be nominated for the â€œAcademy Award for Best Animated Short Filmâ€. It lost to Flowers and Trees, Disney’s first colour short, but what do we see in the character of Mickey Mouse. Honestly this is probably Mickey Mouse at my most favourite. He’s a good character, helping out a bunch of orphans dumped on his doorstep by pretending to be Santa Clause. He and Minnie give them a home and we’re treated to various gags. It’s here that we can safely say that Mickey really comes into his own. He’s still resourceful and clever, but without that hint of malice that can be seen in the first three shorts on this list. The formula is still fresh enough to make Mickey a joy to watch. It’s not hard to see why it got the nomination, and would have probably won if it wasn’t for the fact that Flowers and Trees was in colour (which, if I’m honest, only really picks up in the second half when the story gets in motion).
But since this is the first animation short to be about Christmas and the first Mickey Mouse short to get an Academy nod. It was however far from the last time Mickey Mouse would get an Oscar nod.
Building a Building (1933)
One year later Mickey Mouse would get another shot at Oscar gold, only to be once again beaten out by one of Disney’s other shorts (in this case the now forgotten but once hugely influential Three Little Pigs).
But Mickey’s character in this is the best we’re probably gonna get. He’s funny and clever, but above all else he’s heroic. He goes to save Minnie and get out of the danger that Pete is putting him in. It’s actually a surprisingly good short, playing around with a lot of the gags that can be found in a construction site. If anything one could say it appears derivative (since many of the gags have been recycled as time has gone on), but that’s because it was the first time a lot of these gags were being done.
I think at this point this is the short that will be my ‘go to’ when it comes to addressing how Mickey Mouse should act. He’s not flawless, he is brave. He’s not perfect, he is resourceful. He does quite a lot of good stuff in this short that helps prove why the character is such a timeless entity. But does this trend continue, or is it after this that it all goes downhill? All I can say for certain is this next short has caused quite a lot of controversy over the years.
(Oh and for the record, Three Little Pigs isn’t that bad of a short. It’s probably the first thing you think of when you think of the tale, even if you don’t consciously realise that you’re thinking of it. It removes some of the sub-plots found in other versions for a more streamlined story, with a song that has become ingrained into pop culture. It’s worth checking out to see a rather entertaining re-telling).
The Mad Doctor (1933)
How this short made it to theatres I’ll never know. The Mad Doctor has made a comeback thanks to the Epic Mickey game series, but the truth is the character never really went away. Either the Doctor or his ‘Phantom Blot’ character have always existed in some way at Disney, even if it’s just the odd subtle reference.
This short is one where Mickey suffers… a lot. I can’t really fault Mickey for being scared the entire time because he’s being attacked by skeletons. But he continues to try and find Pluto because he’s a good friend like that. I mean fortunately it turns out to just be a nightmare, but man Mickey goes through Hell in this short. In fact I could probably make a good argument that this nightmare is some sort of hell for him. You couldn’t make something like this nowadays without being accused of traumatizing kids. It was banned in England for a reason.
It’s a shame we don’t get shorts like this any more. There are some great visuals to be had and some really clever jokes. But this short is more famous for the Mad Doctor than it is for Mickey, since the Mad Doctor left such an impression on people. The character had a brief but memorable role and honestly deserves a comeback as a new nemesis to rival Pete (or, perhaps, a bonus boss in Kingdom Hearts 3, considering how much of a surprise twist Julius was after all). Plus this ended up inspiring a much later Mickey Mouse short. But we’ll get to that in time.
So there you have it. A look at the more influential Mickey Mouse shorts over the first five years. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.