There is a lot of debate over who the greatest cartoon star of all time is, but there isn’t much debate about who the first real star was. That title belongs to Mickey Mouse who entered into the world of cinema in 1928 and remained a star into the 1950s. Since then, Mickey’s presence on the big screen has been severely reduced. Between 1953 and 1983, there were no Mickey Mouse shorts. That drought was put out with the release of Mickey’s Christmas Carol, but that short subject has always felt like a cheat. Most Mickey Mouse shorts were around 8 minutes or so, that one was 26 and that’s likely because Disney always had plans to put it on television as a holiday special. Following that short, Mickey would come back with a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? followed by another long-form short in The Prince and the Pauper in 1990. Again, not really a short in the classic sense. The true drought was finally laid to waste in 1995 with a brand new bonafide short that would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award, but Disney would rather you forget about that these days.
Since it is October, the spookiest month of the year, I wanted to recognize the spirit of the month in some fashion which is why we’re to talk about the much unloved Mickey Mouse comeback Runaway Brain. The short was conceived by animator Chris Bailey with backing from executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. In the 90s, Mickey Mouse was a frequent subject in the halls of Disney’s animation wing as the company wanted to restore the character to prominence. The problem was, after decades of being a corporate mascot, Mickey was hard to pin down. As characters like Goofy and Donald Duck gained popularity back in the 30s, Mickey was pushed into more of a straight man role. He really didn’t do much, just played off of others. The 1990 short was attached to The Rescuers Down Under, one of the only animated films of the Disney Renaissance that failed to make a splash. Was that Mickey’s fault? No, probably not, but he apparently didn’t help to elevate that release.
Bailey wanted to do something different with Mickey and it’s said that Katzenberg was onboard with doing a “90’s Mickey.” The original pitch for a short was a duo picture between Mickey and Donald where a jealous Donald would actually try to kill Mickey. That wasn’t going to fly and it was unsurprisingly nixed by Disney executives Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher. Rather than rework that pitch, Bailey did something all-together different coming up with a pseudo-Frankenstein for Mickey that saw the mouse turned into a monster. It was a bold take from a design standpoint as it involved creating a new, monstrous, version of Mickey Mouse which could upset Disney fans young and old. Katzenberg liked it though, and since Disney had a newly acquired team of animators just sitting on their hands in France, the storyboard actually went into production.
Unfortunately, between the start of production and the eventual end, Jeffrey Katzenberg was fired. Or let go, however he chooses to spin it these days. At any rate, one of the supporters high up in the company was gone and in his place were Schumacher and Schneider who seemed to have a much lower opinion of Bailey’s short subject. Despite having a terrific team of animators onboard including Andreas Deja who animated Mickey in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the executives demanded the short be chopped up and hacked apart to remove effects and change scenes around entirely, including the ending. Michael Eisner was said to have liked the short when it was screened for he and the other executives, but either Bailey and team were cut off from appealing to him, or he just left it all to Schumacher and Schneider and put all of his trust in their decisions.
The end result is that a severely compromised version of Runaway Brain was sent to theaters in 1995 playing in front of the dud A Kid in King Arthur’s Court. I suppose the optimist might say that the powers that be paired Mickey up with the forgettable picture to help bring in additional patrons, but Bailey saw it as a slight. It would air with A Goofy Movie and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in other territories, two films that make more sense to pair it with (A Goofy Movie especially), but plans to screen it in 1996 with the Glenn Close starring 101 Dalmatians re-make were nixed at the 11th hour. And since then, the film has only been released on physical media once as part of the Mickey Mouse: In Living Color Volume 2 set and digitally with Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection. And that digital release could be considered a surprise, though it says a lot about the studio’s attitude toward the film that it wasn’t part of the actual, physical, release of the set.
Does Runaway Brain deserve this kind of treatment from the studio? Of course not! While it’s not Mickey’s greatest role or anything, it’s a fun little film and should be on Disney+ at least. Granted, a lot of Mickey shorts are not on the service, but as the only true short from the 1990s, why not that one? Plus it would fit nicely into the Halloween collection. At any rate, lets take a scene-by-scene look at this short so we can see what we’re being deprived of. I am viewing the short via the DVD of the previously mentioned Mickey compilation which is a pretty great set if you like physical media (and it seems to have actually come down in price over the years).
The film begins with a big Mickey Mouse title card and some rather upbeat, fairly typical, Mickey type music. It’s interrupted with a monstrous version of Mickey’s gloved hand which slaps down on the card and then slashes across it replacing it with the Runaway Brain title. The font looks like its molten lava or something and it’s a solid juxtaposition to what was originally presented.
We then find Mickey (Wayne Allwine) at his home. It’s dark and rainy and he’s shouting from inside like he’s being attacked. He’s not, and is actually just playing a video game. He’s really into into it though and so is Pluto (Bill Farmer) who’s bouncing around and barking up a storm. We get a look at the game and it’s a fighter pitting Dopey against the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The gamepad he’s using does slightly resemble a Genesis one, though it’s clearly designed to be something generic.
Minnie Mouse (Russi Taylor) then enters all excited to see her man. She walks in between Mickey and the TV and you can probably imagine how that goes over with the mouse. Mickey even remarks, “Are you trying to get me killed?” and Minnie responds with a “Maybe,” as she feels Mickey has forgotten about an important day. She has to remind him she’s referring to the anniversary of their first date and Mickey is forced to scramble. He puts down the game and tells Minnie he has big plans. Grabbing a newspaper which features an add for miniature golf, he waves it in her face remarking how they can have some fun in the sun. Unfortunately, Mickey didn’t notice an ad for a Hawaiian cruise just below the mini golf one and that’s what Minnie thinks he’s referring to. She gives him a big hug while Mickey stares at the ad and recoils at the thousand dollar price tag. Minnie plants a kiss on his lips before departing to go swimsuit shopping leaving Mickey to try to figure out a way out of this mess.
Man’s, or mouse’s, best friend seems to have the answer as he flops the want ads in front of his master. Mickey’s attention is drawn to an ad promising pay for an afternoon of mindless work – what could go wrong? Mickey sets out to investigate and arrives at the home of Dr. Frankenollie, a portmanteau of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the famous 9 old men of Disney animating legend. His home happens to be located at 1313 Lobotomy Lane which doesn’t seem at all like a bad omen. Mickey seems unphased though as he tosses on a blue tie, and there’s a very brief animation flourish of it choking him as he secures it, before knocking on the door.
When he does so, the ground opens up below Mickey and swallows him whole! He travels down a steel pipe and drops into a crude looking chair that immediately shackles him in place. He cracks, “Talk about your ironclad contracts,” which was one of the many revisions the Disney executives made with this one as he was originally supposed to say, “I think I’m in trouble.” Such a needless revision. We’re then introduced to the doc (Kelsey Grammer), who as an ape, basically climbs all over Mickey. He’s a skinny ape in a white lab coat with a lightbulb in his head. As he examines Mickey he asks him questions such as “Here for the job?” Mickey tries answering his questions in various ways, basically trying to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear and sometimes what he does, just to see if there is a way out. It’s clear his responses mean nothing to the doctor as he has what he wants and Mickey is going no where.
Dr. Frankenollie then introduces Mickey to his partner: Julius. Julius (Jim Cummings) rises from a contraption in the ground and is basically a massive version of Pete crossed with Frankenstein’s monster. He eagerly confirms for Mickey that he intends to swap their brains, and when he does we get a fun X-Ray shot of Mickey’s head which depicts his brain in 3 parts: his head and each ear. Despite protests from the mouse, the doctor activate his machine. Electricity surges out of a contraption in the ceiling and blasts both Mickey and Julius with electricity. For Mickey, it looks quite painful, but for Julius it looks almost therapeutic.
When the experiment is over and the dust settles, the lab looks absolutely trashed. A closeup of Mickey’s eyes and a part of his nose is accompanied with a voice over of him seemingly thinking all is well. It’s not, and as the camera zooms out we see the experiment worked and Mickey is in the body of the giant monster! Mickey, panicked, runs over to Doctor Frankenollie begging him to undo what happened only the doctor is unresponsive. Mickey picks him up and he’s stiff as board. Then his flesh turns to dust leaving behind only a skeleton, which too turns to dust. It would seem the doctor didn’t get to live to see the culmination of his life’s work – such a shame.
We’re then introduced to the monstrous Mickey! Julius comes jumping out of the debris and he’s basically a feral version of Mickey. He walks mostly on all fours, his hands are curled into claws, his ears are furry and jagged, and his eyes rimmed with dark circles and bloodshot. He was supposed to feature lots of drool too, but that was another element the Disney executives had edited out. Mickey tries to reason with Julius and in doing so mentions Minnie. He tells Julius to look in his wallet and when he does he finds a picture of Minnie and Mickey (and we get a brief shot of Mickey from Steamboat Willie) and seems to salivate over Minnie. Mickey grabs the wallet, but it’s too late. Despite formerly being a cat monster, Julius is pretty infatuated with Minnie Mouse and starts grunting her name as he climbs up and out of the ceiling of the lab forcing Mickey to give chase.
Julius emerges on the roof and starts gnawing on the ledge before something catches his eye. It’s Minnie and she’s entering a shop named The Wet Rat (eww). She’s looking at bathing suits, bikinis to be exact, which look quite tiny and a bit risqué, but one look at the size of Minnie’s body and they actually seem reasonably sized. And since a bikini includes a top, it actually covers more than we’re used to seeing with Minnie. Julius comes running in and Minnie tries to hide what she’s looking at since she doesn’t want him to see it until they’re on the boat. She doesn’t notice that her man is looking a bit more feral than usual, and with her back turned toward him, the real Mickey comes bursting in.
Mickey cries out a warning that she’s in the presence of a monster, but she only hears the warning. When she turns around, she sees Mickey, in the monster’s body, grabbing the Julius-Mickey and assumes the monster is the, er, monster. I realize that sounds confusing, but she throws stuff at Mickey and frees Julius and the two of them run out the door. As they run down the street, Minnie is holding Julius by the hand who basically hops behind her and it’s rather fun looking. Mickey, in the body of the monster, smashes through the store and chases after them.
Mickey catches up to the pair and is able to snatch Minnie. He’s finally able to get her to notice it’s him speaking to her, and this short does do the cheat where the characters retain their usual voice despite the body swap. As he says “It’s me, Mickey!” his ears morph into traditional Mickey-shaped ears which is rather clever. Minnie doesn’t ask questions and believes him now, but feral Mickey has grabbed onto a car and is speeding towards them. Mickey swings via some construction equipment to the top of a skyscraper where he deposits Minnie for safe keeping. He then swings back down to ground level and is able to grab Julius. As they swing up into the air once more, Julius opens the bucket Mickey is swinging from which dumps some construction waste onto his head (steel girders and such) which causes him to let go. They land on some power lines which shocks their brains back into the proper body, then slingshots them towards the building Minnie is on. They smash through a billboard, coincidentally for the Hawaiian cruise that started all of this, with the character heads comically inserted into the image.
Mickey comes to and realizes he’s back in his old body. Unfortunately, he’s also in the grip of Julius and so is Minnie! Julius is still lusting over the mouse and Mickey has to bite his finger in order for the monster to drop him. Julius swats him off of the building and then makes a kissy face in Minnie’s direction who promptly slaps him. He’s pretty ticked off now, but before he can do anything to Minnie, Mickey returns! He’s armed with some rope and what appears to be a window squeegee which he cocks like a shotgun. He gets Julius’ attention and then charges at the monster!
Mickey uses his squeegee like a pole-vault and launches himself over Julius and onto a mechanical arm attached to a hula dancer on the billboard they previously smashed through. The arms goes up and and down, but largely is horizontal with the rooftop so Mickey is able to run across it. He lassos Julius who lets go of Minnie, but Mickey is able to lasso her as well. Swinging down and back to the rooftop with his girl in his arms, Mickey and Minnie share an embrace while a wrapped up Julius teeters via his peg leg on the ledge. Minnie takes a step back after her embrace with Mickey ends and she accidentally bumps Julius off of the building. Worry not for the monster, for as he falls the mechanical arm of the billboard pulls him back up like a yo-yo. The camera zooms out for a full look at the gag which provides for our first real look at the contraption in action.
We then cut to Minnie, in her little, green, bikini, and Mickey with their toes in the water. They look like they’re on a float indicating Mickey was able to come up with the money to make their vacation dreams come true. Or not. We zoom out as Minnie plants a nice, wet, one on her man to see they’re on an inner tube being pulled by Julius. He’s swimming them to Hawaii with the picture from Mickey’s wallet dangling in front of his face. This was originally meant to be a crude effigy of Minnie fashioned out of pillows, but for some reason the executives didn’t like that. I don’t think either is necessarily more funny than the other, it just sucks to make people re-animate something for nothing. Plus, in order for this to work now Mickey’s wallet has to be Julius-sized which makes little sense.
That’s it though. Runaway Brain is far more infamous than it rightly deserves to be. The cartoon is fine and I enjoy the look of the characters in it. Mickey and Minnie have a nice flow to their animation and I love how they’re just constantly in motion. Their character models are just ever so slightly redesigned here to make them feel unique to the picture. They both seem a little taller and more narrow than usual, but they still maintain their signature look. I love Dr. Frankenollie, who we really only see briefly. The animators have a lot of fun with the fact that he’s an ape as he doesn’t just stand in front of Mickey, he climbs all over him and all over his own equipment. Julius is positively huge which makes his design a great deal of fun, though he’s still plainly in the realm of a Frankenstein. The feral Mickey is the most memorable part of the short and it’s because it’s just fun to see a monstrous take on a classic character like Mickey Mouse. His arms are usually bent so he has some sharp angles in his posture which is quite different from the rubber-hosed Mickey and his fur is ruff and exaggerated, which again, is very different from traditional Mickey who looks more black-skinned than furry. I’m having a hard time thinking of a scene that makes Mickey look like a fur-covered being and coming up empty.
It is thought that the design of the feral Mickey is the leading reason why this short is so shunned by the company. He’s unsettling and a bit scary and it would seem a lot of people associated with Disney do not like seeing such descriptors attached to Mickey Mouse. Sitting here in 2022 and watching it, it really feels like much ado about nothing. This feral Mickey is not particularly gross, which he certainly could have been given this was made in the 90s, and he’s only vaguely monstrous. We’ve seen Mickey look far worse now on the Paul Rudish shorts, but perhaps those are allowed to get away with more because they have their own style which is very different from classic Mickey? I’m not sure, but in terms of ugly depictions of Mickey, we’ve moved way past feral Mickey in the 27 years since the release of Runaway Brain.
At this point, the black sheep status Runaway Brain seems to embody is nothing short of peculiar. It’s such an inoffensive cartoon. There’s an energy to it that is unmistakably 90s, and the animation puts it square in that era too which is a good thing. It’s nice to have a 90s looking Mickey since he had few shorts and wasn’t allowed to grace television sets as part of the Disney Afternoon like Donald and Goofy. He even gets to act heroic in this one and save his beloved Minnie who also is able to stick up for herself and avoid being a total damsel in distress. It brings back Mickey’s troubles with money, a common trait in his classic shorts, and it’s all together perfectly fine. It’s not some remarkable piece of animation and probably not even top 10 for a Mickey Mouse short, but it is fun. According to some within the company, there’s really no conspiracy or grand design to keep Runaway Brain out of the public eye, it’s just not popular and gets overlooked as a result. Others maintain the opposite though and indicate that many at Disney don’t like it and would rather see it buried. It’s rarely merchandized, and as we covered before, has only been made available on two occasions since leaving theaters. Which is silly, because I think the feral Mickey design could be popular if given the chance as a Halloween tie-in. Sell furry Mickey ears at the parks, put him on keychains, or corny motivational posters about having a bad hair day. Make feral Mickey plushes – I’d buy one! A video game where the player controls a Mickey that turns into the feral Mickey at night like a werewolf could even be fun! Or it would be like that terrible Sonic game. Either way, Runaway Brain deserves to be seen and should be a Halloween treat year in and year out and most certainly should be treated a lot better than it currently is.