He has four fingers on each gloved hand—and he’s got the whole world in his hands. Starting life as a figment of a genius’ hand-drawn imagination, he is now the most famous cartoon character of all time, a testament to the endurance of optimism and humor. He has become a veritable symbol of entertainment itself and is one of the most lucrative intellectual properties ever. Are you ready? It is time to greet Mickey Mouse a happy 90th birthday on Nov. 18.
Today, Mickey is the face (and ears) of the single most prominent entertainment conglomerate in the world, the Walt Disney Corp. But he is so much more than that, as his nearly a century of making people laugh and changing lives shows.
Why has he endured?
Perhaps the best person to answer that question is the person in charge of the stewardship of Mickey: Dana Jones, director of Enterprise Franchise Management at The Walt Disney Company. When it comes to the world’s most famous mouse, she has the last say.
“What Mickey brings to the world through all the different times and generations and countries is the idea of both optimism and joy,” Jones told Super. “Mickey is a true optimist. He always knows that things are going to work out. I think that is something that resonates with people regardless of who they are, regardless of their age. The same goes for the idea of joy. Mickey brings joy to the world. Not in some grand big way, but in the little things, like wearing a Mickey T-shirt at the end of a tough day or watching a Mickey cartoon with your family at the end of the day and getting that smile on your face that Mickey brings.”
It is amazing considering that Mickey was born out of a genius’ heartbreak. In 1928, 26-year-old Walt Disney has lost the rights to his first animated creation, Oswald the Rabbit. As he was on the train from New York to Los Angeles, he was deep in thought. “So I was all alone and had nothing,” Walt recalled in Disney historical records. “Mrs. Disney and I were coming back from New York on the train and I had to have something… so, I had this mouse in the back of my head … because a mouse is sort of a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that everybody’s frightened of a mouse … including myself.” As he imagined his new character into shape, he decided to make him Mortimer. Fortunately, Walt’s wife, Lillian, suggested he change the name to a friendlier Mickey.
Walt came up with two silent Mickey cartoons, “Plane Crazy” and “The Gallopin’ Gaucho,” but could not find anyone to pick them up. With the advent of talkies (movies with sound), Walt put his energy into a Mickey cartoon with music and sound effects all synchronized together, and this cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” was the first such cartoon, creating an entire new standard for animation and introducing a timeless character on Nov. 18, 1928.
Mickey spoke the first words in that inimitable voice (Walt provided the vocals) on 1929, and his appearance began changing until he became the mouse we love today. He appeared in color for the first time in 1935. In 1940, Mickey appeared in his most famous incarnation, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the animated tour de force “Fantasia.” He invaded TV in the “Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955, the same year Mickey welcomed people to the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Mickey is not just popular but critically acclaimed: Walt earned a special Academy Award in 1935 for creating Mickey and Mickey became the first animated character to be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1978, on the occasion of his 50th birthday.
All this happened with Mickey leading a merchandising revolution, as the mouse appeared on every kind of item you can think. The silhouette of Mickey’s head, the distinctive ears became the symbol of the ever-growing Disney Company which today is an empire of entertainment franchises.
Mickey was followed by Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and other now classic characters. Disney may now handle mermaids, ice queens, Avengers and Jedi knights, but it’s greatest treasure is Mickey. Research today shows that 95 percent of people around the world recognize Mickey. The Mickey Mouse brand alone drives more than $10 billion in retail sales annually for the company.
This is all proof that Mickey has never been more popular, and one can only imagine how big he will be when he turns 100 in just 10 more years.
Jones relates a story about just how Mickey affects people. In 2015, Disney did something they had never done: They brought Mickey to the world, away from the theme parks, where Mickey had previously been exclusively assigned. In eight markets around the world, Mickey (the mascot) suddenly appeared in random places such as Cuzco, Peru and Kyoto, Japan. “In Kyoto, he surprised a shopkeeper. Mickey just walks down the street where her shop was, walked up to her and she immediately burst into tears of joy,” Jones recalled. This is the best part of her job, Jones said, seeing the joy Mickey brings to people’s faces.
The biggest challenge is coordinating all the Mickey-related endeavors everywhere.
“Everybody at the company around the world feels that they own Mickey a little bit. It’s a good problem to have because it means everybody is invested in Mickey.”
Filipinos have their own long-lasting affection for all things Disney as they grow, almost as if it is a birthright. But it is Mickey who exemplifies this. Almost all of us have childhood photographs where we are wearing a Mickey T-shirt or are holding a Mickey toy, something repeated in the photographs of our children or grandchildren doing the same.
There’s reason for that, too. “Mickey is plucky, charming, funny and not afraid to break the rules,” Jones explained. “People around the world, including the Philippines, see themselves in Mickey. He is an every person character.”
Disney made sure that Mickey’s 90th birthday this year would be an occasion unlike any other, with events in every country. “We wanted this to be the biggest celebration for Mickey,” Jones said. “We have rallied the entire company. We have rallied the entire globe. It is really something I’ve never seen before. This is one of those celebrations that everybody wants to be part of. We’ve had amazing local activations in every market and these are able to amplify what we’re doing globally and make it so that more people can be part of it.”
The Philippines has its own share of Mickey birthday events worthy of the country’s love for the mouse. Retail giant SM partnered with Disney on the “Share-A-Smile” promotion, with all kinds of Mickey-themed goodies. Uniqlo opened its flagship store in the Philippines at Glorietta 5 in Makati with an exclusive Mickey Mouse T-shirt collection with art by the iconic Andy Warhol.
Mickey is also being celebrated in a stylish way as cutting-edge design school SoFA Design Institute and Disney launched “The Mickey Fashion Design Challenge,” with 10 student finalists boasting the best Mickey-designed pieces. The 10 chosen designers will have their work showcased at a fashion show at the Ayala Triangle in Makati on Nov. 18, with the three grand winners being announced then and there.
Finally, get ready to see Manila lit up by Mickey as Disney collaborates with the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority with Mickey-inspired traffic lights appearing all over the Metro just in time to light up the holiday season. When you walk down the street or drive up the avenues, you will be lit by the changing lights of Mickey, perhaps the ultimate hidden Mickey.
And 90 may just be the beginning for Mickey as there is more planned for the mouse in the future. Next year, the first ever theme park attraction featuring Mickey and Minnie opens in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. This is just one taste of what awaits Mickey and those who love him.
“While Mickey’s personality has never changed over 90 years, the different ways we share Mickey and the ways Mickey shares his storytelling has evolved with the time. That is something that will continue to happen,” Jones said, explaining how Mickey evolved from the animated movie screen to the comic book page and then made the jump to the television screen and now can be found in apps. This is how Mickey has achieved true ubiquity as he turns 90, but this is as much about evolution as it is about the hopeful essence of Mickey Mouse. “Mickey is able to come to life in all of these new platforms and I think that is just going to continue to happen. But it is always and will always be the same Mickey.”
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