In exploring the creation of Mickey Mouse by Walt Disney, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse shows how Disney himself had many different versions of this origin story. Walt knew that the beginnings of Mickey would be forever tied to himself and whatever his company would eventually become. While it might not have been the exact truth, Disney’s version of the story, where Mickey was created on a train ride, became the prevailing account of how Mickey was made.
Any history of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, especially one like Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, which will soon be available on Disney+, is going to pick and choose its history carefully. Disney knows it has a long-lasting legacy to protect, and over the decades, we’ve already seen how Disney can control the narrative to keep their properties on the right side of history. Aspects of Walt’s life are overlooked, versions of Mickey are ignored, entire films are locked in the theoretical vault, as Disney hopes that audiences will forget they ever existed.
For what it’s worth, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse seems to be the closest Disney has ever come to trying to reckon with this questionable history, albeit once again with extreme care and avoidance of certain topics. The story of Mickey and Walt is certainly fascinating, one that has been told over and over again before, but never before have we seen the history of Mickey and Disney’s uncertainty of how to handle the character quite as we do with Mickey.
In the early days of Disney’s history, Mickey was a key figure of the company, a movie star that won over the likes of everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Adolph Hitler. But even in the 1930s, Disney was struggling to figure out how to utilize Mickey after the introduction of Donald Duck and Goofy. After Fantasia gave Mickey his only starring role in a film, Mickey quickly became little more than a sign of consumerism. At one point, Eric Goldberg, an animator for Disney, talks about how the company used to have hundreds of animators working on Mickey cartoons. Now, Goldberg is just one of three animators working on a minute-long short starring the mouse.
Mickey: The Story of a Mouse presents Mickey as a character with his highs and lows, that Disney has had to learn how to use this character, but notably, without ever apologizing for the character’s previous actions of appearing in blackface or his negative depictions of Native Americans. At the very least with Mickey, Disney is acknowledging that this version of their mascot does exist, but simply brushes off the past as part of the problematic evolution of this character. As is mentioned, Mickey and America have changed together, but that seems like a cop out for elements that should deserve further exploration.
Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, from Marwencol director Jeff Malmberg, also quickly avoids some of the touchier topics of Walt and Mickey’s past. Mickey mentions the animators strike of the early 1940s, but doesn’t bother to explore why this strike was occurring, brushing by this in favor of talking about how the stress added to Walt’s mounting problems. Similarly, while Mickey does talk about Walt’s more conservative and questionable actions during World War II in passing, it tries to move past this topic quickly by showing how the concentration camps had a man who would draw Mickey cartoons for the kids.
For Disney the company to explore some of the more negative aspects of Walt and Mickey does at first seem kind of shocking for a company so guarded against anything negative about these two, it still feels like Disney is picking and choosing what they include in this narrative. As the company has proven in recent months, Disney will often try to avoid the truth in hoping that audiences will simply move on, and that’s especially true when trying to explore their past. As one interview subject says, Disney has afraid to do too much with Mickey because if they failed, it could tarnish the legacy of Walt, Mickey, and the Disney brand itself. Similarly, it’s hard to watch Mickey: The Story of a Mouse and not think of how carefully the company is handling the bigger questions of their past, while still trying to be open and honest.
Still, for all its faults, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is at times a charming look at one of the biggest icons of our time, and while this story has been told many times before, it’s never been told with the sort of scope and frankness about how Disney has maybe failed with their mascot. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see Disney admit to their wrongdoings, their problematic past, and own up to the fact that their creator was a flawed man, but at this point, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is about as honest as one can expect Disney will be about its history—for better or for worse.
Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is now available to stream on Disney+