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Disney+ Review: Mickey: The Story of a Mouse

November 16, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

How did Mickey Mouse go from lovable cartoon character to ubiquitous corporate symbol? That’s the question asked in the enjoyable Disney+ documentary Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, which explores the history of how Mickey’s visage – made out of three simple circles – has become one of the most recognized symbols the world over.

Directed by Jeff Malmberg (Marwencol), and produced by Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, 20 Feet from Stardom), the film has a lot of different strands to it, including going back to Walt Disney’s own childhood growing up on a farm surrounded by nature, which inspired him to become an artist by drawing all the little creatures that he saw.

From here, the film tracks how Walt Disney losing ownership of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit inspired him to create a new character, Mickey Mouse, as the face of the animation company he founded with his brother Roy. And the rest, as they say, is history. Through interviews with art historians, Disney animators, and even fans of the character, the film explores how Mickey’s appearance and behaviour has changed over the years, following his first appearance in 1928’s Steamboat Willie, the first sound-synced cartoon.

This includes the introduction of Goofy and Donald as comic foils, partially due to parents complaining about their kids imitating Mickey’s behaviour, with the character essentially becoming domesticated by the 1950s. The film highlights how Mickey’s appearance as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s 1940 magnum opus Fantasia – a commercial flop but artistic success – remains the high mark for how the character has been portrayed, before a comeback in the 1983 short film Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

The film is at its best when charting the onscreen history of the character, including following veteran animators Eric Goldberg, Randy Haycock and Mark Henn as they work on a short film called Mickey in a Minute that brings together different iterations of the character from over the years. Another one of the most interesting chapters explores how Mickey became a symbol of hope during World War II, with the character being banned by the Nazis due to his close connection to American ideals of freedom.

The film is built around Walt Disney’s famous saying that “it all started with a mouse,” and it does play into the myth-making of the company. This is not to say that Mickey: The Story of a Mouse completely ignores the thornier aspects of the character or corporation’s history, because it doesn’t, including an unfortunate “blackface” episode that is treated as a valuable lesson in not writing off the character now because of something that was historically considered okay at the time. But, because the film was made by and for Disney, certain aspects of it feel somewhat brushed over.

The film can feel a bit unfocused as it tries to balance the testimonials of Disney fans with academics discussing the larger conceptualization of Mickey Mouse as a cultural symbol. But, at a tight ninety minutes, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse offers a glossy and entertaining overview of Mickey’s legacy, from groundbreaking cartoon character, to countercultural figure, and finally corporate symbol.

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse will be available to stream exclusively on Disney+ as of November 18th.

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