Did you hear? The legendary Mickey Mouse turns 90 on this day owing his debut to Steamboat Willie, which premiered November 18, 1928. Now, nothing momentous seems to occur these days without a dash of controversy. Most fans of Disney and Mickey are well aware that his first cartoon was actually Plane Crazy from earlier that year, but Disney considers Steamboat Willie his true debut since it was the first with synchronized sound and was the first widely distributed. If that’s the criteria Disney wants to use then so be it. It doesn’t really matter since either way Mickey Mouse has endured for 90 years. In that time he’s been a cinema darling, television host, and brand mascot for the massive Walt Disney Company and he’s quite possibly the most recognized fictional character around the globe. If he’s not, then the list of competitors is rather small.
Over the years the Disney company has celebrated Mickey in various ways, some small and some not so small. He’s always been front and center at the various parks, and yet he is still awaiting his first actual ride (with one in production). Walt Disney famously remarked that it all started with a mouse referring to Mickey’s star power in the early days, though he’s only had one theatrically released cartoon since 1995. He did eventually make the jump to television, but his appearances there are most relegated to the younger crowd as opposed to a general audience. This isn’t to say that Disney has mistreated their mascot at times, but to someone like myself who adores hand-drawn animation it does disappoint me that Disney doesn’t celebrate the earlier work of Mickey as much as it could.
For Mickey’s 90th, that has been partially rectified. Disney recently released the Blu-ray Celebrating Mickey which is a collection of 13 cartoons that reach all the way back to 1928 and as far forward as 2013. As tempted as I am to check out some Mickey cartoons in high-definition, I did not pick up this set since I already own all of these cartoons elsewhere. I’m still happy to see Disney put out such a package, but cutting it down to 13 feels like such a tease.
In celebration of Mickey, I’m going to list out some cartoons I think are worth checking out. I’ll do one for every decade of Mickey’s life, while also trying to pick a cartoon from each decade (not every decade contains a new Mickey cartoon) to highlight. Almost all of these cartoons can be found on one of the Walt Disney Treasures collections, with the only exception being the cartoons released after 1995. And to make this a companion piece to Disney’s Celebrating Mickey release, I’ll refrain from doubling-up on any cartoon released on that collection (which does include some of my favorites like Mickey’s Trailer and Brave Little Tailor).
The 1920s – The Haunted House (December 2, 1929)
Just sneaking into the 20’s is this one, The Haunted House, which features Mickey in (you guessed it!) a haunted house. Animated by Ub Iwerks, The Haunted House contains lots of flashy, spooky, imagery and great sound design. Mickey mostly plays the role of scared victim while an eerie shadowy figure chases him and forces him to play the organ. Don’t worry though, as Mickey does eventually escape, but I like that there isn’t a twist to the ending. The house appears to be legitimately haunted.
The 1930s – Pluto’s Judgement Day (August 31, 1935)
The 30s is probably Mickey’s best decade and it’s loaded with good stuff. Pluto’s Judgement Day is one of Mickey’s earliest color cartoons and it centers around Pluto who dreams about going to Hell. It’s ruled by cats and the whole thing is brought on by Pluto feeling guilty about being mean to a kitten and the whole thing is really surreal. It has a cute ending so we don’t feel too bad for old Pluto.
Moose Hunters (February 20, 1937)
To make up for no Mickey cartoons in the 60s, we’re doing another from the 30s. Moose Hunters co-stars Donald Duck and Goofy as the trio try to hunt a moose. They’re terrible at it and get into all kinds of mischief, including Donald and Goofy disguising themselves as a female moose and attracting the affection of a bull moose. It’s all good slapstick, and for some reason hapless hunters make for good comedy characters.
The 1940s – Symphony Hour (March 20, 1942)
Some consider this the unofficial sequel to The Band Concert, Mickey’s colorized debut. This one is a full ensemble piece as Mickey leads a symphony to impress Pete, who is referred to as Mr. Macaroni in the cartoon. Everything is a disaster though, and Donald has to blow a gasket while Macaroni howls with delight at the misfortune of the band. He turns angry though as the show gets worse, though he comes around when the show ends with applause.
Squatter’s Rights (June 7, 1946)
No Mickey cartoons in the 70s either, so here’s another 40s toon. Squatter’s Rights was Mickey’s first cartoon in several years, and includes some lines or sounds recorded by Jimmy MacDonald, the second official voice of Mickey Mouse. It also includes Chip and Dale, who are woken by Mickey who returns to his hunting camp to find the chipmunks sleeping in his stove. Or rather, Pluto is the one to make the discovery which begins a bunch shenanigans in which Pluto keeps getting blamed for Chip and Dale’s mischief. It includes a bit of a dark spot with a gun, and it’s also somewhat notable since Chip and Dale end up winning the encounter.
Mickey and the Seal (December 3, 1948)
Mickey’s only cartoon in the 80s is Mickey’s Christmas Carol, a fantastic long-form short that you’ve probably heard about (or seen me rave about in the past). Rather than revisit a short I’ve blogged about more than once, here’s another favorite from the 40s. Mickey and the Seal is quite possibly Mickey’s cutest cartoon. It’s similar to a Chip and Dale cartoon, but instead of the chipmunk duo we have a seal who Pluto is well aware of, but Mickey is oblivious to. There’s a great sequence where Mickey and the seal bathe together and if you aren’t completely charmed by the happy little seal pup then you have a heart of stone.
The 1950s – Pluto’s Christmas Tree (November 21, 1952)
All right, I have talked about this one before and more than once, but Mickey only had four cartoons in the 1950s and two of them are on that new Blu-ray. Plus, this one is so super charming and worth watching even when it isn’t Christmas time. It is derivative of Donald Duck’s Toy Tinkers, but it once again pairs up Pluto with the duo of Chip and Dale and it just works so well.
The 1990s – Runaway Brain (August 11, 1995)
Some claim this is the Mickey cartoon Disney doesn’t want you to see. I’ve always been skeptical of such, but it is further reinforced by the fact that Disney scrubs this bad boy from YouTube frequently, leaving some alone that are of poor quality, while it mostly leaves the other cartoons alone. That could just be because it’s a more modern cartoon and Disney therefore feels it has more value than cartoons that are 60 years old. Whatever the case, this one is a lot of fun and it’s so 90s in style which is great since it’s the only true Mickey Mouse short from that decade. Mickey starts off the short playing video games, for crying out loud! Kelsey Grammer voices Dr. Frankenollie, and it features Mickey swapping bodies with a monstrous Pete (who features a peg-leg!) therefore leading to the character fans refer to as Feral Mickey. It makes Mickey scary, so perhaps that’s why Disney doesn’t promote this one any longer.
The New Millennium! – New Shoes (April 14, 2018)
So Mickey Mouse has only had one theatrically released cartoon since 1995’s Runaway Brain, and that was Get A Horse which was paired with Frozen and is on the Celebrating Mickey Blu-ray. Rather than spotlight that again, how about we go with the television/web series of Mickey cartoons that began in 2013? This series is great, and it’s a more manic, Looney Tunes/Spongebob take on Mickey and the gang that I absolutely love. Yeah, it’s not traditionally animated, but what is these days? New Shoes is one of my recent favorites from this series and it features Donald and Goofy as well. The trio swap bodies with hilarious results (Mickey becomes Goofy, Goofy becomes Donald, and Donald becomes Mickey). It’s particularly amusing to see how horrible Donald’s life is, as experienced by Goofy (who while getting beaten he sings the old Donald Duck song) while Mickey exhausts himself by trying to take advantage of Goofy’s monstrous height to help people. Donald just mostly enjoys being loved and celebrated as Mickey for a change. Just a great, funny, smart cartoon.
Well, that’s that. As I mentioned, you can find those shorts on the Walt Disney Treasures collection and some can be found elsewhere (Pluto’s Christmas Tree has been re-released numerous times as part of Christmas collections) while New Shoes is free to watch on YouTube. And a lot of those shorts can also unofficially be found there as well, though Runaway Brain might give you some trouble tracking down a good version, but it’s there as well in some form. They’re all wonderful examples of the star power, charisma, and charm of Mickey Mouse. He’s been around for 90 years now and isn’t likely going anywhere. At this rate, it’s all but guaranteed he’ll outlive us all! Now Disney, how about a restored collection of all of Mickey’s classic shorts in HD? Don’t make us wait for him to turn 100!