Every few years, Disney likes to remind a new generation of fans that this global entertainment colossus was “all started by a mouse,” as founder Walt Disney used to say.
“Mickey: The Story of a Mouse” is such a reminder, a Disney+ history of Mickey, his visual and psychological evolution over the almost 100 years since his creation. It’s a slicker version of similar works that Disney has produced, mainly for television, as that was Walt’s original vision for how to use the medium — promoting his animated brand.
Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg interviews animators and animation historians, artists and art historians, Walt biographers and Disney archivists and fans young and old, folding that fresh material in with snippets of Walt’s earlier TV, big screen and oral history accounts of how the Mouse that Made Him and his company came to be.
It’s not a deeper than deep dive into Mickiana, even though it does mention the shared credit for creation (with animator Ub Iwerks), Mickey’s racist cartoons in the ’30s, Walt’s increasingly conservative politics and the like. “Mickey” is fittingly built around another reboot of the mouse — a new hand-animated short, “Mickey in a Minute” — a cartoon that takes us through many (not all) of the looks that the mouse has had on screen, from the 1920s to today. That short film — included here — isn’t the whole story, or even that satisfying. But it gives us the general idea, with a few new flourishes, just like the documentary it inspired.
For my money, the entire film could have taken place in the Disney Archives in Burbank. Still drawings from the earliest Mickey cartoons, including the breakout sound film “Steamboat Willy,” flip books illustrating every change in Mickey’s design — “Fantasia” Mickey, “Mickey Mouse Club” Mickey, “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” Mickey even the more recent “Ren & Stimpy” ish Mickey for more anarchic TV appearances — it’s all here.
The studio that owes it all to a mouse has been quite the packrat when it comes to preserving its history and that of its most important intellectual property.
Malmberg & Co. take us to the Disney family farm in Marceline, Missouri and to “Mouse Heaven,” one fan’s collection/shrine in Beacon, New York. Great animators from the late Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” to Andreas Deja and Mark Henn and Eric Golberg, who animated and coordinated with other animators the “Mickey in a Minute” short film., weigh in on the character, whom we see being drawn, “inked” and animated. They break down the “personality” and character traits that come from the seemingly simple choice of how Disney and others decided he should walk (confident, bouncy, nimble enough to respond to any circumstance), react and interact with the world.
There’s also a lot of talk of the global phenomenon Mickey Mouse quickly became, his iconic status at home and abroad during World War II (fascists banned him), and the seeming simplicity of his design, just “a few circles,” that made him easily identifiable the world over and triggers such a loving response from literally billions of people, young and old.
A joke about what future archeologists might make of our worship of the mouse, an entire civilization’s “shrine to the Great God Mickey,” rings a lot truer that you’d think.
No, “The Story of a Mouse” doesn’t get definitive answers that cut through Walt’s penchant for “tall tales” about the Mouse’s origin, or avoid repeating Disney lore about this and that. It’s still an eye-opener, especially for the casual fan who hasn’t devoured all the many books on Early Disney as a subject and Mickey as a character, a corporate brand and a cultural touchstone.
Cast: Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, Mindy Johnson, Rachel Cline, Carmenita Higgenbotham, Bret Iwan, Floyd Norman and Walt Disney.
Credits: Directed by Jeff Malmberg. A Disney+ release.
Runing time: 1:30