Mickey: How a cartoon mouse became a cultural icon

Mickey Mouse is Walt Disney’s most famous creation and a long-standing cultural icon. (Pixabay pic)

On May 15, 1928, American cinemagoers watched a short cartoon which had a plot about a certain mouse embarking on a shenanigans-filled plane ride with his giggling girlfriend.

Little did they know that this mouse, named Mickey, would become one of the world’s most recognisable cultural icons for decades to come.

As hard as it is to imagine, Mickey Mouse has been around for a remarkably long time, retaining cultural relevance even now.

His fame cuts through generations, as older folks can remember the black-and-white cartoons of their era while younger people had Disney Channel as part of their childhood.

The simplistic design of the character adds to his recognisability, as everyone will think of Mickey Mouse as soon as they see two small circles attached to a bigger one.

Walt Disney would lay the foundations to the world’s most successful entertainment empire. (Pixabay pic)

Even in Malaysia, it’s hard to evade the character as he tends to adorn children’s products, school bags and stationery cases alike.

But what is it that makes this cartoon mouse so iconic? And where did he come from in the first place?

To trace Mickey’s origins, one must first understand Walt Disney, the man whose name now represents one of the most successful entertainment companies in the world.

When Disney first entered the entertainment industry, the playing field had changed with the introduction of animated cartoons.

Disney took to animation with enthusiasm, but hit several setbacks early on.

For one, the rights to his first created character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, were lost after Disney fell out with Universal Studios and left in a huff.

‘Plane Crazy’ was Mickey Mouse’s first cinematic debut, released on May 15, 1928. (Walt Disney Studios pic)

Despite the rather bleak situation, Disney persevered and with his fellow animator, Ub Iwerks, drew the first draft of the iconic character.

Inspiration could have been derived from a pet mouse that Disney kept, though this remains unconfirmed.

Interestingly, the mouse was not always meant to be given his memorable name, and at first, Disney intended to name him “Mortimer”.

However, Disney’s wife, Lillian Bounds, suggested that he go with “Mickey” instead, as it sounded cuter.

Mortimer Mouse would later be included as a crooked romantic rival to Mickey.

However, the creation of Mickey Mouse was not enough to guarantee financial success, at first.

“Plane Crazy”, Mickey’s first cinematic debut, was animated in Disney’s garage literally on a shoestring budget of US$1,700.

For all that trouble, “Plane Crazy” was not received well by audiences, as was his second appearance in “The Gallopin’ Gaucho”.

The success of Disney’s short, ‘Steamboat Willie’, would propel Mickey Mouse into lasting cultural fame. (Walt Disney Studios pic)

But what made Mickey Mouse finally make it as a breakout success was the inclusion of sound and music in his next appearance in “Steamboat Willie”.

In addition to being an animator and producer, Disney was also Mickey’s first voice actor and would continue to be until his voice became hoarse due to his smoking habit.

The success of “Steamboat Willie” would make Walt Disney and his mouse a pop culture icon.

It should be noted however, that Mickey Mouse’s personality has changed over the years, following cultural sensibilities of the times.

In his first few shorts, Mickey was something of a smoking, drinking rogue; his personality has since been mellowed down to become a playful but well-meaning adventurer.

Mickey Mouse shorts continue to be made today, with this particular short set in a Malaysian night market. (Walt Disney Studios pic)

Over time, more characters would be introduced by Disney for Mickey to interact with, among these being the Donald Duck and Goofy; icons in their own right.

Throughout the rest of his life, of all his creations, Disney was most proud of Mickey Mouse, the one character that had propelled him to success.

He once joked that he loved the mouse more than any woman, and according to his wife, he wasn’t exactly lying.

Disney once said of Mickey, “All we ever intended for him or expected of him was that he should continue to make people everywhere chuckle with him and at him.”

“Mickey was simply a little personality assigned to the purposes of laughter.”