The Untold Exploitation at the Heart of Mickey: The Story of a Mouse

The Disney doc ignores the character's worst legacy: Copyright law

Movies Features Disney Plus
The Untold Exploitation at the Heart of Mickey: The Story of a Mouse

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse will, for many moviegoers, be a somewhat surprising film. Very few of Disney’s major projects in the past few decades have centered the mischievous mouse who was originally voiced (I seriously did not know this) by Walt Disney himself. It’s clear that a documentary film is warranted about the history of a character who was once so famous that his name became a slang term but who has featured in markedly few productions in the lifetimes of his target audience. A character whose success heralded the first ever synchronized sound in a cartoon and turned a Missouri farm boy into one of the most mythologized businessmen in Hollywood history. It’s just as clear that Disney should not have been the ones to ultimately sign off on their own story, including a talking head segment from once-and-future CEO Bob Iger.

Paste’s Kathy Michelle Chacón mentioned in her review of Mickey: The Story of a Mouse that the film completely fails to come to grips with Mickey’s real legacy, the one that will have the most far-reaching consequences. I refer to copyright law, around which Disney has lobbied ruthlessly to secure more favorable terms for itself at the expense of the public domain. It is a fact left conspicuously unspoken in the documentary that the copyright on Steamboat Willie, the original animated iteration of Mickey Mouse, is set to expire on January 1, 2024, just shy of a century after it was first published, but long decades after it originally would have. Mickey: The Story of a Mouse inadvertently answers an unspoken question: What exactly have Disney’s corporate lawyers been so mercilessly fighting for all this time?

That the documentary manages to go back and show the connection between Mickey, the character, and Walt Disney, the man, is an unexpectedly welcome accomplishment. You can feel a sadness in the elderly Disney when, in old interview footage, he can’t quite manage the old Mickey falsetto for more than a few lines. The doc touches more ably than I thought it would on how Mickey has been sanitized—Iger even says so, over footage of Mickey mascots at the park waving at guests the same way Elizabeth II used to wave at her subjects.

Why then, The Story of a Mouse sort of asks, has Mickey and, by extension most of the studio’s hand-drawn animation, fallen off the release schedule? The answer the film posits is that Mickey’s rough edges, the things that made him a character, were largely filed down, that teaming him up with Goofy and Donald relegated his flaws onto his dopey and self-interested wingmen and made him the straight man. Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the doc’s talking heads point out, came out in 1983 and it was seen at the time as a comeback for the character. Yet, as they also point out, it was a Scrooge McDuck movie, with Mickey as a kindly secondary character. That is always how Mickey has appeared to me, a person who is much older than Mickey’s current target demographic. He was allowed to be in one scene in Kingdom Hearts due to just how fiercely Disney has kept his image under lock and key. One gets the impression of a sickly Victorian child confined to bed by his overprotective parents, or an out-of-touch politician so closely managed by his campaign staff that he can’t even get out to shake hands and kiss babies.

The result, The Story of a Mouse acknowledges, is that many young people nowadays don’t really have much connection with the character, a fact that is sort of insane, when you consider that kids in every corner of the globe used to know the character. Somewhat unspoken, though, is that this is also insane because Disney and the things it owns are everywhere: Half the blockbusters in theaters belong to them either directly or by proxy, and whenever somebody employs, say, Industrial Light & Magic to touch up a sound effect, somebody at Disney hears the sound of a cash register opening. It’s just that, apart from appearing at the park and the odd exception of some shorts aimed at a revival of the character’s original feel, the company isn’t all that interested in…you know, Mickey.

This all serves to accentuate a pain that doesn’t get fully examined, but that nonetheless lies at the center of Mickey: The Story of a Mouse. The spine of the documentary follows three faithful, graying animators—Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn and Randy Haycock—who are making a one-minute Mickey tribute short that visually references iconic cartoons from the character’s past. That pain is present in their wistful faces and voices as we watch them quietly and carefully pencil out the circular forms of Mickey in his various permutations throughout the years, pausing to flip back and forth between earlier key poses or to sharpen a pencil. Goldberg, who has worked on some of Disney’s modern classics, off-handedly mentions that there used to be hundreds of animators here.

It’s never been more apparent that Disney is stepping away from that work, and pivoting toward simply rehashing the fruits of those old labors and farming out work to the studios it owns, who are far more likely to churn out a Rise of Skywalker than an Andor. Looking at what Disney has coming up in the next couple of years, one struggles to find any new idea, anything that nurtures a new spark of creativity: I count five original stories in their slate of dozens of impending major releases, since by definition nothing that Marvel or Lucasfilm does counts. If that’s the stance the studio is taking, is it any wonder that Goldberg appears to be animating in a mostly-empty building?

That’s the effect Disney’s IP-driven approach is having on Disney. I often wonder what effect it’s having on the rest of us. To tell stories about heroes and villains, monsters and tricksters and even just cute little mice who are getting over the Great Depression, is inherent to being human. The concept of a right to a character or a story is centuries old now, but in the broader view of humanity, it’s fairly recent. More recent still is this current paradigm that persists since the copyright law changes of the 20th century, which have ensured that so much of our popular culture is dominated by these protected legacy characters. While these characters sprang from the minds of singular and peculiar creators, they also become phenomena largely through corporate patronage, and that has led them to live deathless existences making those patrons profit. Increasingly, it’s not the estates or families of the creators who benefit from, say, Superman still being a copyrighted character, but huge corporations, which don’t care about any connection the creator or you or I have to a character like Mickey Mouse—just what money they might wring from that association.

The Walt Disney Company is remarkable because it embodies, down to its very marrow, the conflict between this nostalgia for older characters and the modern, corporate stranglehold over them. The Story of a Mouse brushes up against the fact Mickey sprang from Walt’s head and made his father a mountain of money, which Walt and his company have used to silo off the character from the passage of time. Doing more than just brushing would mean having to reckon with why it is no surprise that the company is intent on swallowing up so many other intellectual properties for the exact same exploitation. It all started, we hear time and again in Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, with a mouse. And it did, all of it: The theme parks so large they required borderline espionage to buy up, the franchises using digital trickery to resurrect or de-age actors rather than give a shot to new talent, the brazen efforts to simply not pay authors royalties for Star Wars novels.

Nobody should go into Mickey: The Story of a Mouse expecting it, as a movie released with Disney’s blessing on Disney+, to grapple too critically with any of this stuff. But as the house Mickey built moves further and further away from the kind of work that made it great, it’s harder and harder not to think about it, no matter what stories Disney tells about itself.

Kenneth Lowe’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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