New Mickey Mouse documentary revisits the Disney icon’s controversial early years: ‘Mickey’s not necessarily a good guy in those cartoons’

He may have hit the big 9-5 in calendar years, but Mickey Mouse is forever young in the hearts of kids, parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents. The signature creation of Walt Disney — and his oft-forgotten collaborator, Ub Iwerks — long ago went from being a humble cartoon mouse to the symbol of a global corporation that has an outsized influence on global pop culture. That evolution is chronicled in the new documentary, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, which premieres today on Disney+ and depicts the tension between Mickey the Mouse and Mickey the Mascot.

“I liked Mickey as a kid, but I liked him because he was my nightlight,” admits the the film’s director, Jeff Malmberg. “Growing up in the ’80s, Mickey was a corporate logo and a greeter at the Disney theme parks. But the film character was really missing when I was a kid.”

The Story of a Mouse sets out to remind audiences of Mickey’s character … which also means reckoning with the more controversial aspects of his nine-decade history. Following his breakout appearance in 1928’s “Steamboat Willie” — one of the earliest cartoons to feature synchronized sound — Disney and Iwerks’s mouse starred in a series of cartoon shorts in the late ’20s and early ’30s that are very much the product of their times and feature a version of Mickey who is much more ribald and rude than he later became.

Not only is he seen wearing blackface in 1933’s “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer” — where he and his cartoon pals stage a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin — but he also forced himself on his longtime companion, Minnie Mouse, in shorts like 1929’s “Plane Crazy.” While Malmberg includes those offending moments in The Story of a Mouse, the full versions of those early Mickey Mouse cartoons are unsurprisingly unavailable to watch on any official Disney platform, including Disney+, although most of them can be found on YouTube.

“I can understand how some of those films may be offensive today,” admits legendary Disney animator, Eric Goldberg, who has drawn Mickey in multiple contemporary cartoons, including the era-spanning “Mickey in a Minute,” which is seen in The Story of a Mouse. “I absolutely get it. But I think you have to put them in their context of where society was when those films were created and understand that they were a reflection of who we were at a certain time in history. I prefer for them to be seen, but I can understand why they’re not.”

Two of the biggest proponents for making those early Mickey shorts available are esteemed art historian, Carmenita Higginbotham, and pioneering animator, Floyd Norman, both of whom are Black. “I love Mickey in the ’20s and ’30s,” Higginbotham, Dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “That’s where you have some incredible risk-taking, and a place where we get a sense of him as a personality. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, he becomes this necessary figure. And I also love his being in everyone’s face and his perseverance! Those are qualities that really resonate with me.”

“Mickey’s not necessarily a good guy in those cartoons,” she continues, noting that Warner Bros. has released some of the studio’s older Looney Tunes shorts on Blu-ray with statements warning of offensive or dated content. “Because of that you can really understand and read how issues of sexism and racism are playing out in a public context in that era. And all through physical humor. I’m an art historian, and I believe that art should be made accessible with the right context. They are cultural artifacts.”

Norman, meanwhile, is the only animator interviewed for The Story of a Mouse who actually knew Walt Disney. Born in 1935, he learned to draw after watching classics like Bambi and Dumbo and later became the first Black animator to work at the Mouse House, joining the company in 1957 — nine years before Disney’s death. “Walt was already legendary by the time I arrived at the studio,” Norman remembers. “I was able to observe him pretty close at hand and got to know the man. You realize just how much Walt Disney was the perfect representation of Mickey Mouse. He was the ultimate optimist, incredibly resourceful and a remarkable leader. And Mickey Mouse was all of those things.”

Having had that one-on-one experience with Disney — who voiced Mickey Mouse in all of those early cartoons — Norman understands that he was a man of his time, and the content of those shorts reflects that. “It was a different world, and a different time,” he observes. “There are a lot things we probably regret, and mistakes we’ve made. But I don’t believe in hiding history: we should all learn from history.”

“Looking back at the past, you recognize that the world has changed, and the culture has changed, but that doesn’t mean what happened back then should be censored or hidden from view,” Norman continues. “We should know about these things. If the studio wants to put a disclaimer at the head of those cartoons, I have no problem with that.”

But The Story of a Mouse doesn’t just tell the story of Mickey’s past — it also speculates about his possible future within the halls of Disney. Certainly, Mickey remains a major star at all of the Disney parks, and in merchandising. But in recent years, he’s also made a comeback as an animated personality. Young viewers are introduced to him in the pre-school friendly Disney Junior series, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, which lives on in re-runs years after it stopped producing original episodes. And Disney+ has found success with The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse, a streaming series that launched in 2020 and features a more retro version of Mickey in both appearance and attitude.

For Goldberg, those examples prove to him that Mickey remains a “living, breathing” character beyond the frozen face that greets visitors as they walk into Disneyland or Disney World. “He is alive to use,” the animator says. “Mickey is a character with a particular personality, and a particular way of moving. We treat Mickey like he’s always in the present, not somebody who has been frozen in time. Any new piece of animation we do with the character reflects that.”

“Last year, we did a large piece of animation for the 50th anniversary of Disney World, and it was missing Mickey,” Goldberg continues. “We were told we needed to include him, and so we animated two minutes feature him for this show. And the response was fantastic! Everybody was like, ‘Hurray, there he is!’ So it’s not like the character has gone away or is in retirement: he’s still here and present for people.”

That said, it doesn’t appear that Disney has any immediate plans for a Mickey-centric feature film, at least none that they’d share with Malmberg and his producer, Meghan Walsh. “We haven’t been privy to that information,” Walsh says, laughing. “I’ll be the first person to be excited to see what’s coming. I remember watching the [2013 cartoon] “Get a Horse” before Frozen and that made a strong imprint on my mind years before this documentary. What they’ve done in the past ten or so years has been really cool from my perspective.”

For his part, Norman thinks that the timing is right for a new Mickey Mouse feature. “Mickey is a viable star,” he notes. “He sells tickets at the box office, there’s no doubt about that. He’s not going anywhere: he’s forever a part of the Disney studio and a part of our lives.”

As The Story of a Mouse notes, there will soon come a time when Mickey Mouse transitions from exclusive Walt Disney Company property into the public domain. That’s an inevitability that the corporation has so far managed to successfully postpone, most famously via the Copyright Term Extension Act that Congress passed in 1998. Famously introduced by then-California Congressman, Sonny Bono — who died in a skiing accident before it was signed into law — the bill extended the clock on copyrighted characters, including Disney’s menagerie of creations. Because Disney executives lobbied extensively for the bill, it’s since become known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

But that extension is finally running out. On January 1, 2024, “Steamboat Willie” will enter the public domain, and that iteration of Mickey Mouse will be fair game for other artists to use without fear of legal repercussions. (Disney will still hold the copyright to later versions of Mickey, though.) In the past, the company has challenged individuals and companies that have used Mickey’s image without permission — including one famous case involving a day care center — and a spokesperson suggests to Malmberg in the documentary that the company has perhaps been too aggressive in that regard.

“I’m glad we were able to talk about that,” the director says. “This is far from an independent documentary: we are serving at the pleasure of the Disney Corporation. Within that, you have to have very firm lines in the sand of things that you want to talk about and things that you need to talk about. Copyright was one of them.”

Higginbotham, for one, is excited to see the art that a public domain Mickey inspires. “It’s going to be really interesting when that symbol goes worldwide and without restriction,” she notes. “How is that going to change how we understand what Mickey means? Right now, he is largely a symbol and not in the way he was in the ’30s.”

There’s a chance that Mickey might even return to his controversial ’30s roots. Next year, moviegoers will have the chance to see the new horror film, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, a gory horror movie starring A.A. Milne’s classic childhood character, who entered the public domain in January. (Disney continues to own the copyright to its version of Winnie the Pooh.) That means that an R-rated horror movie version of “Steamboat Willie” — with Mickey making like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers and slicing-and-dicing his victims — could hit screens as early as 2025.

Asked how he’ll feel if a Mickey Mouse slasher movie goes into production, Norman just laughs. “You never know what’s going to happen when you let the cat out of the bag,” he says. “I’ll be watching, though! I’ll be watching.”

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is streaming now on Disney+

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