There are few figures in popular culture that carry as much raw emotional power as Mickey Mouse.
As a character, Mickey Mouse has engendered love and laughter from countless viewers for more than 90 years in popular culture. As a corporate symbol, Mickey Mouse has elicited more complicated emotions. Both are grappled with in “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse,” a new documentary that will debut at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, on Saturday and will be headed to Disney+ later this year.
Director Jeff Malmberg wrestles with the uber-Mickey – the Mickey that embodies the American ideals of optimism and kindness, and the Mickey that stands for some occasionally iffy practices by a multinational corporation. Along the way, he also dips into the ways that Mickey has changed throughout the years, from his feisty early years to having his edges sanded off as he became an icon more than a character (Donald got all of his messier qualities), to his second life today, thanks to a series of cartoons by Paul Rudish. Somewhat surprisingly, the doc also gets into the iffier periods of Mickey Mouse too.
As a bonus, the documentary features a new Mickey short, called “Mickey in a Minute,” a kind of truncated “Into the Spider-Verse”-style short that goes through the different Mickey eras, animated by legends like Mark Henn and Eric Goldberg.
TheWrap talked to Malmberg about all of this, in a wide-ranging interview about the world’s most famous mouse.
Consider this a spoiler warning, though, for those who want to go into the documentary cold.
How much did you know about Mickey Mouse before you started this documentary?
Certainly not as much as I know now. It was just always something that intrigued me, like there seemed to be two sides to this character and that felt very interesting to me, something I wanted to explore. And it seemed like he’d been around long enough that there were interesting things inside that very simple image or logo.
Did the documentary come first, or was it the short? Did one inform the other?
I’m not sure their thinking on that short, where that came from … I just was tuned into it when I was working on the documentary. Because so much of Mickey is in the past and it’s all wonderful and interesting. But to sit there and watch Eric draw and trying to figure things out and draw I don’t remember how many he says, original hand drawings in a minute of footage. But something like a thousand.
How much of the documentary was inspired by the ongoing copyright battle for the character?
I remember being in high school or something, hearing about a school that had Mickey on their wall and they had to paint it over and it just blew my mind. I didn’t get it. As I became someone who was interested in art, Mickey was this weird third rail.
And so, from my perspective, things like Milton Glaser’s short “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam.” There are examples of off-brand Mickey art that inform and better the character, in my mind. And when you see on-brand Mickey now, you see a little off-brand. And when you see off-brand Mickey, you see a little on-brand. And I think that actually makes for a really interesting character and somebody that I wanted to understand a little bit more, what that was about. Definitely the copyright thing, to me, was… “I’m going to get them to talk about this.” Now you see how they talk about it, I think it’s an initial kind of, I’m not going to solve the issue, but I can push the ball forward.
What surprised you the most about going on this journey?
I come at Mickey from a very loving place. Like I think the world is a little less happy without Mickey in it, honestly. Anything that’s a universal kind of shortcut to joy and smiles is great by me. But I wanted it to be an honest portrait. He has inherited some really crazy things. Just like America and the 20th century had a lot of really crazy things in it. So, you can actually kind of in a weird, odd way, see angles on some of those things through this drawing and through this logo and this character. And that’s very strange.
Because half the world sees him as so meaningful. And then the other half sees him as meaningless. It’s just naturally, there start to be these gray areas that become really interesting. And if they were going to be willing to be honest about that, then I really wanted to do it. Because I had some questions and it was something I wanted to explore.
One of the more interesting aspects of the movie was the section on World War II. How reticent was the company to engage with that?
I think because we’d set a tone of like, “Hey, don’t get us wrong. We love Mickey, but there’s some interesting things that happened.” I mean, to me, one of the more interesting moments in the film that … and I didn’t know it beforehand, but we found it when we were doing the research, was the Mickey au Camp de Gurs comic book that person made in the camp. And you even see if you look, it says in French, “produced without the authorization of Walt Disney.” Even then, they’re playing with the idea of authorship or who owns what. Those moments really speak to the power of the character.
I can’t speak for them, but it’s like in that instance, although it is World War II and I had heard that they were sensitive to that, really what we’re trying to bring up is that this character has tremendous power in a positive way. I didn’t ever get a sense from them that was a problem.
The other big taboo you engage with is Mickey in blackface.
I mean, it was very important to me that we included it … it’s an 89-minute documentary, we’re not going to solve the issue of that. But we can at least bring up the question, and the line that I was glad that they let us include was that some of the images that Walt did with Mickey, Walt did damage. And I think that’s exactly right. And for a character who’s so supposedly inclusive, it’s just a sad moment. To their credit, they never flinched when we sent them that scene.
I’ve got a seven-year-old. I love watching Disney+ with her. I love watching all that old animation. But some of that stuff’s problematic. So how do you solve that? Do you solve it with a paragraph?
Do you solve it with a conversation? I don’t know. It just was important to us to create a scene that was honest. And that would hopefully lead to people talking about it.
Was there anything that’s too taboo? It’s hard not to notice the lack of “Runaway Brain.”
We had a “Runaway Brain” scene, because I’m with you. It ultimately just didn’t make kind of the arc of the film. I’d be curious if I had tried, what would’ve happened. There’s a lot of, as you know, history there. I was always trying to free my mind from the concept that this needed to be a Wikipedia entry or an encyclopedia, like “Runaway Brain” is one of my favorites, it just didn’t quite make the swoop we were going for.
Did you have a favorite Mickey era after this?
After this, I think I really fell in love with that, kind of from “Fantasia”-ish, or let’s start with like ‘38 to like ’41, like “Brave Little Tailor” through “Fantasia” through “Little Whirlwind.” Just that wild, “Little Whirlwind” Mickey, I think is just so dynamic. And it would be interesting to see where that went if that line kept going, I wonder where Mickey would be today.
The section on modern Mickey was really interesting to me. Especially that you talked to Warren Spector who got a raw deal in this whole thing. But to see him still be magnanimous about the character, was really inspiring.
Yeah, I agree. I’m glad you say that. I really like him. And I think that he was such a vibrant example of, there was a period where Mickey really, frankly, post-Walt’s death, post-1960s, of the image being reinterpreted, we’ll say.
What is Mickey? And it’s people like Warren, it’s people like Eric, it’s people like Paul Rudish, who get to play with him again. To me, that was really interesting, to have people who could take him off the shelf and dust him off and let him be an actual character. And not so precious. Because if we don’t do that, he’s a plush toy. And he’s a great plush toy, but like he’s more than that.
To see their attempts at that and I think, frankly, maybe early days on that, that he could be a dynamic character that we all know again. That’s been a recent phenomenon.
When is the Donald doc coming?
Unfortunately, that would be a seven-minute short, I think.
“Mickey: The Story of a Mouse” will be on Disney+ later this year.