When Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse for the first time in 1928, he wasn't just creating a character for the movies. He was making a living, breathing image that would change the landscape of animation forever. November 18, 1928 is considered the "birthday" of the Mouse, the day "Steamboat Willie" premiered, and since then the iconic character has seen several reimagined versions, corresponding with the evolution of animation and the entertainment industry as a whole. Whereas the first cartoon of Mickey Mouse was produced by hand by Walt himself (along with a few other members of his animation team), over time Mickey has become a preened and prodded by hundreds of animators, altered but maintained as a symbol of a thriving company. Take a journey through history to see just how much this character we know and love has changed.
Mickey began in the simplest of forms as a design by Walt Disney's friend and business partner Ub Iwerks. The earliest versions of Mickey were in black and white. His features included beady black eyes, a small upper torso with a proportionally-sized head. As was customary during this period, he was animated in the "rubber hose" style - which made it appear as though he had no bones, and his body could be manipulated at will. "STEAMBOAT WILLIE" was the first ever Mickey Mouse cartoon to gain recognition for the character - it was also the first ever cartoon with synchronized audio, though it was composed of music and effects noises, but no dialogue. Early Mickey was considered a more brash version of the character who would eventually become beloved for his childish and whimsical demeanor.
The first official Mickey Mouse cartoon to utilize color was "THE BAND CONCERT." It was part of a new technological advancement that Disney would bring into his studio, winning himself notoriety and multiple Academy Awards. The process was called Technicolor, which used a three-strip process to capture cyan, magenta and yellow and create a full color-spectrum for film. Though Mickey is best known for his red-with-yellow-buttoned shorts, in "THE BAND CONCERT" he wears a conductor's outfit. Still, he is characterized by his signature color red, which he would continue to wear in subsequent shorts, feature films and eventually TV shows.
1940 would serve as a landmark year for Mickey Mouse, not only because he starred in his own short, "THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE" in his first feature film, FANTASIA, but also because he went into the film with an entirely new design from animator Fred Moore. Mickey exchanged his beady black eyes for white eyes with large pupils. His body became less flexible, now animated with squash and stretch (which serves for more realism). He became more pear shaped and his head grew in size, taking on a peachy skin tone as well. These were moves toward realism matching other cartoons of the era like "POPEYE," which, though still exaggerated in principle, was characterized by a real world aesthetic. Mickey was transitioning out of an era of primitive animation, into one of stylized hyperrealism.
With the advent of television, Mickey Mouse became synonymous with youth entertainment on ABC's "THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB." In the 1950s, when the show began airing, other animated TV programming started to pop-up. Shows like the United Productions of America's (UPA) "THE GERALD MCBOING-BOING SHOW" in 1956 utilized limited animation, consisting of fewer animated frames and simpler backgrounds, a theme that Mickey Mouse cartoons would take on - most notably in the form of THE "MICKEY MOUSE MARCH" intro which showed Mickey Mouse and friends moving along a multi-colored background. Mickey retained his general design at this time, the only notable change being the growing roundness of his cheeks and the ovular shape of his ears.
After remaining relatively absent from the animation world after "THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB" ended in 1959 (and again after a run from 1977 to '79), Mickey made his return to the screen in "MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL," a short animated film based on the novella A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens. This was one of a few adapted classic stories in which Mickey would star as a main character. Later films included THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (1990) and MICKEY, DONALD, GOOFY: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (2004), based off of the Mark Twain and Alexander Dumas stories respectively. These animations would take on a similar costuming style to previous eras, but on a Mickey Mouse character with a more rounded-out frame.
Mickey started to take on a modern twist in the early '00s with "HOUSE OF MOUSE." In the show, Mickey plays host to a dinner theater club which airs old and new Mickey and Friends shorts. His shape is consistent with previous eras, however his clothing style is period-inspired. Mickey's costuming is en vogue, featuring a blazer and an open-white collared shirt with purple penny loafers to match, in this instance lacking his signature red. The show came at a time in which Disney began to compete for the attention of its youth audience. With alternative networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network dominating popular cartoon programming, the new Mouse cartoons attempted to bridge the gap between old and new by showcasing classic Disney animation in a modern context.
Transitioning out of his traditional animation days, Mickey made his first appearance as a CG character in 2003 at Walt Disney World in "MICKEY'S PHILHARMAGIC." The CG character would eventually make it back to television in Playhouse Disney's "MICKEY MOUSE CLUBHOUSE," a show aimed at younger child audiences. These were the first insights into Mickey as a 3D character. In addition to having a bodily weight that the 2D version lacked, there is a noticeable texture to his frame as well as definition to aspects of his clothing (i.e. the buttons of his red shorts). This transition to 3D coincides with a trend in TV animation into the new medium. Popular shows like "FRANKLIN AND FRIENDS," (2011) "DOC McSTUFFINS" (2012) and "SOFIA THE FIRST" (2013) now capitalize on CG production as well.
With a CG Mickey Mouse already in existence, the possibility for re-imagination of the Mouse had to take some creativity. In 2013 came the new "MICKEY MOUSE" cartoons, the first two titled "CROISSANT de TRIOMPHE" and "NO SERVICE." They featured a modernized version of the classic Mickey Mouse and Friends which Executive Producer Paul Rudish considers a hark back to the character designs of the '30s with "pie eyes" and "rubber hose" animation. The animations also feature a clean minimalist aesthetic characteristic of present graphic design fads, with a limited color palette and absence of shadows, creating a stark two dimensional effect. For the first time, Mickey Mouse is reverting back in a modern, chic way, bringing the design of the character full circle.