How does the iconic Disney cartoon character Mickey Mouse celebrate his birthday? According to a seven-and-a-half-minute cartoon from 1931, titled The Birthday Party, he gets a surprise bash in his honour by his girlfriend, Minnie. Mickey and Minnie dance away the evening with Horace the horse and Clarabelle the cow. Not a bad way to celebrate your third birthday.
Mickey was given a similar surprise for his 14th birthday, this time joined by Goofy baking the cake (in an oven that has a setting for “volcano heat”) and Donald Duck leading a conga line.
On his 50th birthday, Mickey was gifted his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first animated character to get one. That day has come around once again. On November 18, 2016, Mickey is 88 years old.
Still looking young and remarkably sprightly for his age, Walt Disney’s most enduring creation continues to charm young audiences and inspire fascination among older ones ever since he appeared in our lives in 1928 behind the helm of a boat in Steamboat Willie. Apart from being Mickey Mouse’s introduction to popular consciousness, the seven-minute-and-42-second film, directed by Disney and Ub Iwerks, was also the first animation production to have synchronised music and sound effects.
Walt Disney recognised that he had created a star, and was quick to cash in on Mickey’s immediate acceptance. A hoard of merchandise featuring the mischievous but lovable mouse hit the market. The relentless commercialisation of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters over the years has been criticised by many.
In a paper by Christian studies scholar Bruce David Forbes, which discusses Mickey Mouse as a cultural icon, film reviewer Leonard Maltin has been quoted as saying: “By weaving together the worlds of television and movies, programming and advertising, and adult programming and children’s programming, Walt Disney made his TV offerings part of a seamless mesh of entertainment. Today, we are all ensnared in Walt’s web.”
There are many facets that make Mickey an interesting character: he tried to forcibly kiss Minnie and received a tight slap from her; he didn’t always wear his trademark gloves; he once tried to commit suicide when he thought Minnie was cheating on him. For the first few months of his existence, he didn’t say a word. It was only in the short The Karnival Kid in 1929 that Mickey Mouse spoke for the first time. His first words: “Hot dog!”
The 1940 animated film Fantasia marked Mickey’s first appearance in a feature-length film. The classic, comprising eight segments, has Mickey Mouse as the lead in an animated rendition of the German poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Set to pieces conducted by Leopold Stokowski, the short has some eerie and dark moments as Mickey wears the sorcerer’s hat and pushes the boundaries of magic to dangerous limits. In dealing with magic that he is ill-equipped to control, Mickey causes a flood that threatens to drown him.
Scenes of waves of water rising, falling and gathering momentum along with the musical score make the 10-minute short a visual and musical treat. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice went on to gain popularity over the other shorts included in Fantasia.
Mickey Mouse was soon recognised as a symbol for America itself and was featured in many parodies and satires about his nation. He appeared as a soldier in a silent anti-war short Mickey Mouse in Vietnam, in which he is shot dead moments after his arrival on the battlefield. The short was created in 1968 by Lee Savage and graphic designer Milton Glaser, best known for his I heart New York logo.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Glaser said that the short film was made to be shown at a cultural festival that had invited artists to produce works about the war in Vietnam. “Mickey Mouse is a symbol of innocence, and of America, and of success, and of idealism – and to have him killed as a solider is such a contradiction of your expectations,” Glaser was quoted as saying.
Not everyone saw Mickey Mouse as a benign symbol of the innocent and noble American. For many, the character was the creation of an evil corporation and stood for acceptable values. Mickey Mouse has been satirised by artists, comics and designers as a symbol of copyright infringement, greed and power. He even had a grotesque counterpart. Rat Fink was created by artist Ed Roth and inspired by his dislike for the Disney character.
Mickey Mouse still constitutes an important part of television viewing for children. The cuddly but also controversial mouse had burrowed his way deep into our hearts way before Remy the epicurean rat from Ratatouille. There are several TV shows dedicated to him, and he has spun off a profitable line of merchandise. Walt Disney’s company has gone to become an entertainment behemoth, but Mickey Mouse remains one of the most recognisable anthropomorphic creatures to roll off the Disney pipeline.