When you consider who the greatest icon to come out of Hollywood could be, the answer might surprise you. It is not an actor, actress nor a movie mogul or filmmaker. Instead, it is a little cartoon mouse named Mickey. Sure, you have your Marilyn Monroe, or your James Dean, or your Charlie Chaplin whose images have transcended the work they have done and have inspired legends of their own purely through their existences alone. But, Mickey Mouse is altogether different. His impact is felt on all of us earlier on than any other entertainer in the world. Apart from their mothers and fathers, Mickey Mouse is likely the first face that an infant will recognize due to the fact that for generations the first exposure that all children usually have to the world of entertainment is through watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Though distinctively American in creation and in personification, Mickey is known and beloved the whole world over, making him one of the world’s most effective ambassadors as well. It’s been said that the only things more recognizable worldwide than Mickey Mouse would be either Jesus or the Coca-Cola bottle. But, it really makes you wonder, why Mickey Mouse? He wasn’t the first cartoon character, nor the most prolific. Some would even argue that he’s the least interesting cartoon character because he’s portrayed so often without flaw or negativity. But, regardless of personal feelings towards Mickey, the true reason why he is held up in such high regard is because of the of his overall effect on everything, from the legacy and power of the Disney company, to his affect on pop culture, to even the personal affect on our childhoods. And with the marking of his 90th year in existence, we are left with an even more profound question: what would the world have been if there never was a Mickey Mouse?
The most immediate impact that Mickey Mouse certainly has had is in the creation of the largest media empire in the world. When Walt Disney first conceived of the character back in the summer of 1928, I don’t think he would have ever had imagined that the company that bears his name would have the kind of reach that it does today. The Walt Disney Company is an undisputed industry leader, having arms devoted to the business of movies, television, theme parks, consumer products, and even hospitality and cruise lines of all things. They are just about to overtake one of their competing studios in an unprecedented merger, and will soon add streaming entertainment to their ever growing portfolio of services. But despite all the growth and the broadening of collective properties that are brought into the Disney company’s fold, there is still one constant, and that’s the presence of Mickey Mouse. Mickey remains the symbol of the company, embodying the wholesome, reliable face that the Disney company wants the world to recognize them as. Mickey’s power as a symbol is crucial for a mega-giant corporation like Disney, but he’s also held up in such esteem because of his significance to the company’s survival. Walt Disney said so himself in one of his many television specials, “I hope we never loose sight of one thing. That it was all started by a mouse.” This has become the motto of the company itself, as they recognize that after all the movie premieres, after all the earnings reports, the new attraction openings, the product launches, the ups and downs, the surprises and failures, that everything that makes Disney what it is stems from Mickey. It’s a statement to say to all those working in the industry and in particular to those at the Disney company, that you should always have eye towards the past while looking forward into the future.
For Walt Disney himself, he fully understood what Mickey Mouse meant to him. After working his way through early animation studios in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt set out to Los Angeles to embark on creating a studio of his own. There, he worked closely with another young, ambitious animator named Ub Iwerks, who helped Walt Disney experiment with groundbreaking techniques like mixing live action and animation together. With the help of his business savvy brother Roy, Walt soon opened his first animation studio in a back office in the Los Feliz district of LA. Having put together a robust staff and gained some notoriety for his cutting edge Alice shorts, Walt soon developed a new series devoted to what he hoped would be a cartoon star on the same level as Felix the Cat. That character would be Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit. But, after producing a handful of Oswald shorts, Walt soon learned that his distributor, Charles Mintz, had effectively written Walt out of his contract and signed away all his animators (except Iwerks), leaving him with nothing; not even Oswald. On the ride home after that fateful meeting, Walt brainstormed what to do next and out of that came the concept for a spunky little mouse. With Ub’s help, they created the first drawing of their new character and gave him the name of Mickey out of the suggestion from Walt’s wife Lillian. They now had their character, but what would make him different than Oswald? The answer was a voice. After the breakthrough of synchronized sound in the movie The Jazz Singer (1927), Walt made a gamble of adding this technique to the medium of animation, and it not only worked, it made history. But, what voice would do for a cartoon mouse? Well, for Walt Disney, the answer was simple: he would perform it himself. Walt’s falsetto fit the character perfectly, and more important, it gave him personality. That’s why Walt had such a lasting devotion to the character, because Mickey was such a part of him, and essentially is what saved him in Walt’s darkest moment.
You don’t have to look further than the very hub of Disneyland park to see just how connected those two are to the history of the company and to the industry in general. The bronze statue, dubbed “Partners” shows Walt and Mickey holding hands as they overlook the worldwide destination that they built together. You’ll see no more a fitting representation of the bond between creator and creation in art outside of religious iconography. But true immortality only benefits the creation in the end. Walt Disney passed away with many of his ambitions left unfinished, and much of what the Disney company is today is quite different than what he would have intended it to be. But, the Walt Disney Company still has an affinity for it’s past, and that’s no more apparent than in how they’ve maintained their icon for all these years. Walt didn’t just give Mickey his voice, he gave him an identity. Mickey Mouse became an icon because of the way that he embodied the every man hero that we all wanted to be. That’s why he gained so much of his popularity during the height of the Great Depression. The determination that Walt Disney put into the character to stand up for justice and pull himself up from the depths of despair gave hope to those who had all but lost it in those times. The same proved true during the War Years as well. Though Walt stopped short of putting Mickey in uniform (because he didn’t want Mickey to symbolize actions related to killing others as a part of combat), Mickey nevertheless represented the American spirit that helped unite the nation together. You know Mickey had the right effect when dictators like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin wanted him banned from their countries. One of the most compelling instances of Mickey’s powerful influence in the culture came when Walt Disney made a goodwill tour of Latin America in the midst of World War II. Upon visiting Uraguay, Walt brought with him a collection of shorts that the South American nation had rarely seen before then, as well as plenty of Mickey dolls for the children of the country. Mere days after Walt’s visit, the Uraguanian government told the German ambassador to leave and that they would be cutting diplomatic ties with the Nazi regime. All that, because of a cartoon mouse.
Naturally, the Walt Disney Company recognizes that Mickey Mouse is a powerful symbol, and they’ve been careful to guard his image over the years. Apart from the use of the character for wartime propaganda in the 1940’s, Mickey Mouse has never been used for anything more to do with government. He’s thankfully never endorsed a politician nor any political party. Individual groups unaffiliated with the Disney company have however adopted the image of Mickey Mouse into their own iconography, and usually depending on the level of objections you hear from the Disney corporate offices will tell you just how much they themselves stand on most issues. Though Mickey is meant to symbolize neutrality officially from the Disney company, his image has been used among a variety of things like advocating for the environment, for civil rights, and for the welfare of the poor and disenfranchised. I can tell you having been to the LA Pride festival that I’ve seen many members of the LGBTQ community showing off their pride with among other things shirts and pins with a rainbow flag shaped into that distinctive three-circle silhouette of the mouse himself. Mickey may not officially be an advocate for all those things, but the effectiveness of his ability to spread a message is certainly not lost on all these groups. In particular, many advocacy groups like to use the symbol of Mickey Mouse because it helps their message reach younger minds who naturally grow more interested when they recognize a character whose played such a big part of their upbringing. Mickey Mouse is trusted in ways that most politicians would dream about, and that can be both a blessing and a curse. The reason why the Disney company chooses to not make Mickey Mouse an official symbol of anything other than their brand is because they don’t want there to be any backlash brought their way when certain positions face fierce opposition. Mickey is often used as a means of undermining the good aspects of the company and the character, as critics and troublemakers like to break down something that is manufactured to be portrayed so pure. You see this in stuff as harmless as t-shirts with Mickey covered in tattoos or giving a gang sign to more extreme aspects like showing in some media Mickey committing murder, involved in a sex act, or using hate speech. Mickey is almost too powerful a symbol, and the best we can hope is that the desire to see him remain a positive influence in our lives wins out over everything else.
Despite Disney closely guarding their the image of their iconic mascot, they still do their best to keep Mickey in tune with the times. That, more than anything, has kept the character relevant for 90 years and will likely continue to keep him around for another 90. Mickey has changed little in some ways, but at the same time is also greatly different than how he started. The whistle-blowing steamboat captain of Mickey’s debut short, Steamboat Willie, set the primary look for the character, but several changes like the addition of pupils in his eyes and a more pear shaped figure that is easier to animate have been added over the years. There are certainly benchmark moments that cemented new eras for the character; one in particular being the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia (1940), which is widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of animation of all time. Not every use of Mickey Mouse has aged well; I’m sure Disco Mickey is something that no one wants to remember fondly, Disney most of all. But, the fact that Mickey never has fallen out of popularity after all these years is a real indication of the effectiveness that the Disney company has had with adapting the character over the years. And the interesting thing is that Disney has done that sometimes by even returning to the things that have worked in the past. Surprisingly, Mickey has returned more recently to a more retro look in recent animated shorts, with the color taken out of his skin and the pupils returned to their original black dots. And when you look at most Mickey related merchandise, what ends up selling the most are the things that have sold well generation after generation. I don’t think that it’s any mistake that one of the face options available on a newly purchased Apple Watch is one of Mickey Mouse designed to look like all the classic watches made throughout the years, with Mickey’s arms moving across the dial. In some ways Mickey moves with the times, and then sometimes the times move to meet up with him. That’s the power of a character who transcends all the rules and manages to endure no matter what else happens in the culture at large.
For me, Mickey Mouse has had a profound impact. My journey into the world of cinema was, to say the least, all started by a mouse. I had my first Mickey Mouse doll before I could even walk, and the first things that I likely ever saw on television were the Mickey Mouse cartoons that my parents let me watch on the then newly launched Disney Channel. Since then, I spent many of summers in California, often visiting Disneyland, and some of the oldest pictures I have of myself are in the embrace of a Mickey Mouse walk around character from the park. I have only worn watches with a Mickey Mouse face on it, and have numerous shirts in my wardrobe with some Mickey design on it. Though my movie tastes have largely moved beyond just Disney related materials, I still hold a special place in my heart for the studio and their mascot, because they were the gateway to everything else. And I’m sure that it’s the same for a great many other people out there, especially in the film industry. Many people learned how to portray heroism through Mickey; because he embodied everything that made a hero great. He’s also an embodiment of the every man ideal, much in the same way that the likes of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart often represented on film. Though not always used perfectly, Mickey Mouse stands as an ideal for good-natured civility in a world that desperately needs it. One of the most profound moments ever on the big screen related to Mickey Mouse came not in a Disney film at all, but in a sharp satirical comedy from Preston Sturges called Sullivan’s Travels (1941). In that movie, a jaded filmmaker embarks on a soul-searching mission to go out into the country and find a sense of the real human condition in America, warts and all. He casts aside his wealth and influence and lives life as a hobo, becoming more cynical and frustrated with how Hollywood seems to overlook the real plights of the average person. At the end of the movie, he ends up in a chain gang of prisoners and all of them are brought into a room and treated to a film after a long days work. And it happens to be a Mickey Mouse cartoon. The director, played by Joel McCrea, is stunned to find these downtrodden souls suddenly filled with joy and laughter when watching the cartoon, and for a moment, he too forgets his sorrows and laughs along with them. From then on, he realizes the real effect that cinema has on uplifting the hearts of everyone and has faith renewed in his art-form once again. The fact that it took Mickey Mouse to make that profound change is a real testament to how impactful he can be on one’s personal journey.
Like most influential things in our culture, Mickey Mouse is many different things to many different people; a symbol, a corporate logo, an ideal, a nuisance, a role model, a teacher, a celebrity, an icon, a relic, a revelation, and for many people, a friend. 90 years has made the character so monumental across the world mainly due to the fact that he is passed on through the generations. Our parents and even some grandparents have known only a world with Mickey Mouse as a part of it, and for most of us, he was an essential part of our upbringing. Most parents even intentionally bring their fondness for Mickey Mouse into the rearing of their own children, keeping that tradition going in the hopes that they can have that as something that helps to bond their family together. Few other characters become a part of our lives the same way that Mickey does. Walt Disney may not have realized it at the time, but he had stumbled upon one of the greatest assets to humanity that the 20th century likely ever produced. The fact that Mickey has gone on to symbolize goodwill across the world is one of the greatest accomplishments that he’s ever had the privilege of being a part of. Imagine a world where Mickey Mouse never came into being. Would Walt Disney had found success with something else, or would he have faded into obscurity having given up on his dreams? Would another cartoon character have excelled in his place? Would the power and influence that the Disney company now yields have been scattered differently throughout the film industry? Would America and Western democracy have battled back tyranny had they not had as powerful a goodwill symbol as Mickey Mouse? The world would have likely been very different. Historically and culturally, Mickey Mouse is an indispensable part of our lives. That’s why, as the Mouse hits that monumental 90 year mark this month, we all are reminded of the personal effect that he had on our own lives and for most of us, it’s filled with fond memories. Whether you are putting on your mouse ears, or watching “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for the hundredth time, or getting that ever crucial picture at Disneyland, it’s a celebration worth rejoicing over as that little Mouse named Mickey is still going strong. Come along, sing the song, and join the jamboree; M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E.