A History of the Mouse that Roared

On November 18 of this year, Mickey Mouse turns 90 years old. This mascot of Walt Disney Studios has had a long history, changing from his original form to his current squat and recognizable version. I thought I might provide a little history on this famous mouse, commemorating all that he has contributed to the Walt Disney brand.

Mickey Mouse’s story doesn’t start with himself, however. It starts with a cute little rabbit. This was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created in 1927 by Walt Disney when Disney Brothers Studio was just another part of Universal’s animation branch. He was an instant hit, and a star of Universal’s animation sector. However, when Disney met with Universal to negotiate another contract in 1928, he found himself in a position where all his employees had been hired away and the rights to Oswald had been ripped from him. He had been offered to become an employee for a lower salary, but had refused, leaving with loyal animator Ub Iwerks to find a replacement for Oswald.

They made a new character, a mouse, who originally went by the name of Mortimer. But the name didn’t last, and by the time of his debut, he was Mickey.

Now, Mickey wasn’t an immediate hit like Oswald. In fact, his first two shorts drew almost no attention. However, Disney made a big break with the release of Steamboat Willie, the first animation to have synchronized music and sound, on November 18 1928. Within a matter of months, a line of animated shorts appeared, and by the end of the year Mickey Mouse was a national fad. Walt Disney began lining up Mickey Mouse merchandise, and within two years the Mickey Mouse Club was up and running.

Mickey Mouse in his original form was more round, which limited the amount of movement that he had in animation. However, in 1935 animator Fred Moore gave him a more pear-shaped body, pupils, white gloves and a shorter snout, making him more dynamic and cute. This appearance made its big appearance in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a musical short that appeared in 1936’s Fantasia.

By the end of the 1930’s, Mickey Mouse had been in dozens of shorts, having starred in countless adventures. His popularity would continue throughout the 1940’s and into the early 1950’s, when major motion films such as Bambi and Sleeping Beauty began to take audiences by storm. With the rise of the “Golden Age” of Disney films came the fall of the popularity of Mickey Mouse. Starting in 1953, Mickey Mouse would be entirely out of commission until 1983, with the release of Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

Despite this decline, Mickey Mouse is still one of the most recognizable animated characters of the 20th and 21st centuries, still maintaining a whopping 40 percent of merchandise sales, and still appearing in popular video games such as Kingdom Hearts. He is the face of Walt Disney, and more generally Disney itself, maintaining a permanent presence. He is a small mouse with the voice of a lion, making himself known wherever he goes.

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