Mention the name Walt Disney and one cannot help but imagine images of superior animation, magnificent theme parks, an entertainment and financial empire and the little guy who started it all -Mickey Mouse.
In 1928, Walt Disney had run into bad times while working in Kansas City. Most of his hired animators had left him and went to work for a competing studio. Things looked bleak, but out of a desperate situation came a new character. Inspired by a mouse that prowled his office, that at one point Disney could not afford cheese to feed it anymore, Mickey Mouse was born. Mickey Mouse is now the most recognizable cartoon in the world. His lasting appeal to people of all nations is one of the great phenomena’s of the twentieth century. The question of why Mickey Mouse has been so successful has been discussed from time to time. Some debate that it is because he was one of the first seriously animated characters. Others say the manner in which he is drawn is unique compared to other cartoons. Although the success of Mickey Mouse seems to be a mystery to many, his success is the representation of the value of Walt Disney.
In this essay I will look at Mickey Mouse using the value analysis critique. Value analysis is the identifying of a value or values that define a culture or a person. So in this paper I will look specifically at what value Mickey Mouse represents and why that value has made him into the most successful cartoon character in the world.
The optimism of Mickey Mouse comes from that of his creator, Walt Disney. In an interview, Walt Disney said the following:
“Sometimes I’ve tried to figure out why Mickey appealed to the whole world. Everybody’s tried to figure it out. So far as I know, nobody has. He’s a pretty nice fellow who never does anybody harm, who gets into scrapes through no fault of his own, but always manages to come up grinning.”
Mickey “always manages to come up grinning” because Disney learned how to “come up grinning.”
Looking at the all the times in Walt Disney’s life when he was down, one can see that nothing could ever stop him because he always got back up. Growing up on the farm in Marceline, Missouri his family had their share of bad times. Two years in a row the crops failed and Disney’s father, Elias, had to mortgage the farm. Then the well where the Disney family and the livestock got their water became contaminated. After swine fever had hit the hog herd, Elias became extremely ill with typhoid. He hovered between life and death for several weeks at the hospital. Walt’s older brother Roy enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War I and Walt, being inspired by his brother but still being a year too young to enlist, persuaded a Red Cross recruiter to let him join up. Walt was shipped off to France in October 1918, when the war was practically over. However, he saw the devastated lands over which the war had been fought. He spent ten months in France and told friends that it constituted “a lifetime of experience.”
In the fall of 1919 Disney tried to get a job as a newspaper cartoonist in Kansas City but was turned down by all the papers. He became discouraged but remained determined, and got a job at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. There he became friends with a Dutchman named Ub Iwerks. A few weeks after Christmas, both of them were laid off and Disney and Iwerks decided to “come up grinning” and go into business for themselves. They got a job in February, 1920 at the Kansas City Film Ad Company.
Disney began to experiment with animation and gradually completed several cartoons that he shipped off to local theaters. He approached the owner of the Film Ad Company, A. Vern Cauger, with a suggestion to develop a series of cartoon shorts. His idea was rejected, so Disney decided to “come up” again and break out on his own. He collected $15,000 from local investors and used the money to assemble a small studio with a working crew. Walt joined with his brother Roy as business partners to eventually establish the three-room Disney Brother Studios in Los Angeles.
Walt signed a contract with New York distributor, Margaret Winkler, and her backer, Universal Studios, for one series and an option for two more of “Alice’s Wonderland.” An animated comedy that featured a live-action six year old filmed in a cartoon setting. The initial contract called for one cartoon per month. In 1924, Margaret Winkler’s husband, Charles Mintz, took over the distribution company and demanded one film every three weeks. In 1926 with a steady income, a new studio was built and a new animated character, named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was developed. He debuted in 1927 and became a great success. In 1928 the current Oswald contract expired and Mintz concocted a scheme to make Disney and his studio fold over to him, slowly luring away the majority of Walt’s staff. Disney negotiated with Mintz for a new contract, and was stunned when Mintz offered him less money and told him to take it or leave it. Within days, most of Disney’s other animators went to work for Mintz also. Roy Disney was very upset and asked his brother, “Do you realize what sort of situation we are in? We’ve lost our animators and it looks like we’ll lose our studio.” Facing the first major crisis of his career with a “grin,” Walt held secret brainstorming sessions with Ub Iwerks, and his brother Roy. At a time when things seemed to be at their worst, here emerged Mickey Mouse.
Like his creator, Mickey also had his share of hard times and was able to always get back up. In 1928, Mickey starred in his first film, “Plane Crazy” and then followed “Gallopin’ Gaucho.” His third film was a breakthrough innovation that incorporated sound for the first time called “Steamboat Willie.” In “Steamboat Willie” Mickey gets into a “scrape” with the captain but tries to remain confident and pretend he is not afraid of the captain when his expression sometimes dictates otherwise. Even in the earliest of cartoon shorts Mickey does not back down from his problems. There were many times in Walt’s life when he was faced with a scary situation but chose to keep his head up and move forward. “Mickey didn’t seek trouble, and he didn’t complain; he rolled with the punches…as in “The Little Tailor,” he showed warrior resourcefulness and won, once again, a kiss from dear,…Minnie.” Mickey Mouse’s relentlessness to remain optimistic when confronting the struggle was drawn into him by Walt Disney’s pen.
The personality of Mickey Mouse is that of his author, Walt Disney. As a young man, Walt Disney always impressed friends and family alike “with his mischievous curiosity and fun-loving nature.” His younger sister Ruth took note that he had an engaging personality and “was always thinking of ideas.” She said that throughout his whole life, “Walt always seemed like a kid to me.” Mickey is the kind of fellow who is always playing around and playing jokes. The entire concept of the creation of Disneyland and Disneyworld, the two major theme parks, and its spokesman, Mickey Mouse, is to inspire people to keep the wonder, youth and fun of life alive and well in everyone. Walt Disney always seemed like a kid to his sister, Ruth, and so does Mickey Mouse. A cartoon never grows old and never changes with age, it never dies. When Ub Iwerks was shown Walt’s preliminary sketches of Mickey he said, “he looks just like you–same nose, same face, same whiskers, same gestures and expressions. All he needs now is your voice.” Walt admitted that he would look in the mirror and use his face as a model and that many of the facial expressions were his.” Mickey’s appealing charisma of youth and joy to make others happy comes from the imaginations of Walt Disney’s desire to make others happy.
Mickey Mouse’s perseverance to succeed is why he is so appealing. In America the majority of people were all the “little guy.” The decade that preceded Mickey Mouse, America lived through World War I, and a year after Mickey was created came the Great Depression. The distance that separated the rich from the poor was immense. There wasn’t much in between. In contrast, the number of poor and middle-class incomes greatly outnumbered those on the higher end of the social ladder. Walt Disney had also lived along with America during these difficult times as well. Disney had always been the “little guy.” He was always getting picked on by Hollywood and tried to be taken advantage of. He speaks of when he was dismally poor in his tiny office of Kansas City and one of his friends was a little mouse. He states “It used to crawl across my desk and I’d feed it bits of cheese. I got quite fond of it and looked forward to its visits.” Disney was with nothing but a mouse to look forward to. “It would take the cheese right out of my fingers and then curl up and go to sleep in the palm of my hand,” he said. Then there came a period when he could not even afford cheese for the mouse any longer. In those hard times Disney remained determined that he would make his dreams come true as well as everyone else in America also desired.
When the time came that Walt Disney became successful in the creation of Mickey Mouse he could not help but put the very same value characteristic into that mouse that Disney had in himself. Disney knew that he had become a success because he decided to never give up. He decided to take the value of “never quitting” and put it into animated form. Mickey Mouse is an animated creation of the value of “never quitting.” Mickey Mouse is so appealing as a cartoon because people in America and all over the world recognize that value to never quit in Mickey. The value of Mickey Mouse is a direct representation of that same value of Walt Disney. The greatest human achievement possible is getting back up just one more time. Anyone who possesses this quality can never be defeated and can do anything. People pick up on that and can feel it in the personality of Mickey Mouse. People want to be like Mickey Mouse and that is why he is so likeable.
Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney are the same exact value. “There’s a lot of Mouse in me,” Disney said of himself. They both are huge successes. Disney’s success came from the worldwide appeal of Mickey Mouse. Mickey’s success came from the worldwide appeal of Walt Disney.
In analyzing Mickey Mouse as the text that has permanently become a global phenomenon, and then his creator, the value of “never quitting” is easily identified as the one they both have in common. It is the value that they and the people that admire them also have in common. It answers the question of why Mickey Mouse has become so successful. He is the embodiment of Walt Disney’s character. They both had extremely difficult times in their lives just like the majority of people do at some period during theirs. They both endured the hard times because they knew eventually they would become successful. People identify with both of them because they too know they will become successful sooner or later by exercising the same value of “never quitting.”