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Baby Yoda, various reboots of ’90s family franchises and too many Marvel shows to count might generate the most buzz, but some of the things Disney+ has produced most successfully have been extended and glorified commercials for different pieces of the Disney brand.
Looking at everything from theme park attractions to beloved characters and recently completed shows, these commercials are able to capitalize on the vast resources of the Disney vault so thoroughly that they can get away with calling themselves “documentaries” — though even the most devoted of Disney fans can probably recognize how many of the company’s rough edges have been sanded off or ignored entirely. They’re entertaining and absorbing, and even a cynic such as myself can’t deny that they include jaw-dropping, perfectly preserved archival materials.
Mickey: The Story of a Mouse
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Jeff Malmberg1 hour 33 minutes
Offering 93 minutes of radiant rodent hagiography, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is maybe the most polished of Disney+’s recent documercials. (Others include Behind the Attraction, Marvel 616 and Under the Helmet: The Legacy of Boba Fett.) The access to veteran Disney animators and work from different stages of the process is unparalleled, the intimate and glossy cinematography by Antonio Cisneros is impeccable and I challenge anybody to spend 93 minutes with Mickey Mouse without smiling frequently. It’s still somewhat disappointing to see director Jeff Malmberg, in his first solo documentary feature since 2010’s remarkable Marwencol, trading that film’s compassionate humanism for corporate cheerleading. So that’s a warning for any overlapping Mickey and Marwencol stans.
As the title indicates, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse traces the origins of Mickey Mouse back to Walt Disney’s youthful fascination with nature, from his disappointment at losing control of Oswald the Rabbit to the technological breakthroughs of Steamboat Willie, to the commercial disappointment of Fantasia, through the character’s vocal and aesthetic evolutions over the decades.
When Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is just about animation, it’s wonderful. The product promoted here is a 2022 short called Mickey in a Minute, shown in its entirety toward the end of the documentary. Created by Disney stalwarts Eric Goldberg, Randy Haycock and Mark Henn, the short is a fun vehicle for discussing things like the importance of Mickey’s jubilant movement; little, crucial tweaks like when Mickey’s eyes were given expressive pupils; and the changes to his attitude that precipitated the introduction of Donald and Goofy, and turned Mickey into basically a tiny, domesticated suburban human for much of the 1950s.
You can’t tell the story of Mickey without simultaneously telling the story of Walt Disney, and it’s here that the genuflecting is predictable and occasionally nauseating — especially when the worship comes from historians and academics forced to treat unsavory elements like Disney’s union-busting, or even completely humanizing elements like his mental health struggles, as barely footnotes, if that. There’s a generic bio-doc of Walt Disney woven through here that has been done more thoroughly many times.
It isn’t that The Story of a Mouse ignores missteps like Mickey in blackface or the weirdly harassing aspects of Mickey’s early relationship with Minnie. No, art historian Carmenita Higginbotham looks very disappointed in acknowledging that these blips occurred, but they’re presented completely separately from Disney’s biography and there’s no real effort to grapple with what they mean.
It’s better than the way Disney+ has erased Song of the South from the Disney legacy, but it’s in the same ballpark. You can tell Malmberg wants credit for including these chapters, for being sure to touch on Mickey’s period as a focal figure in actual war propaganda or for mentioning Mickey au Camp de Gurs, a comic booklet written in a French internment camp before the author was executed in Auschwitz. These things are much more interesting than the general puffery throughout, and stories of Mickey’s relevance beyond the Disney brand would feel less awkward if you didn’t also have people talking about how Disney has sued daycare centers for painting Mickey on their walls.
Almost everything negative, prickly or complicated is packed into the last 30 minutes in a chapter that could be titled, “Yeah, we lost track of Mickey for a couple decades, but then we figured out how to get him right again and now Mickey Mouse is awesome once more, just look at Mickey in a Minute, thanks Bob Iger!” And yes, Bob Iger is central to the documentary, talking about how his era of Disney was able to save Mickey from being a boring, passé corporate symbol and make him into a vibrant corporate symbol.
Malmberg’s Marwencol chops are most evident in the tangential looks at various Mickey Mouse obsessives — a fanatical collector, a guy getting a Mickey tattoo — and several montages of memories and tributes from general Mickey fans, shot in close-ups against colorful backdrops. I would have preferred much more of these civilians and enthusiasts, mixed in with the animators, and probably less of the forced analysis from the historians, semioticians and academics forced to tautologically repeat things like “America is Mickey” in countless different variations.
If Mickey Mouse is America — and I don’t disagree with this contention at all, though it’s more problematic than anybody here wants to really explore — then you wouldn’t think he would need a feature-length commercial. But when that commercial is as cheery and as packed with sketches, rough animation and behind-the-scenes treasures as this, I highly doubt many fans will take issue.
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Jeff Malmberg
Executive Producer: Caitrin Rogers
Producer: Morgan Neville, Meghan Walsh, Chris Shellen
Cinematographer: Antonio Cisneros
Editor: Jake Hostetter and Aaron Wickenden
Sound Designer: Lawrence Everson
Music: Daniel Wohl
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