SXSW Film Review: Mickey: The Story of a Mouse

Our convoluted relationship with everyone's favorite cartoon rodent

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse

WWMD. What would Mickey do? In Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, it seems he would do what we all would do.

In Jeff Malmberg's fascinating and touching new documentary, which debuted at South by Southwest 2022 ahead of its debut on Disney+, the iconic symbol of the Walt Disney company is taken back to the beginning, as Walt Disney's last desperate attempt to save his career in the fledgling animation industry. In a very different world, Walt wouldn't have signed the contract that gave the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal, and he wouldn't have come up with the idea of Mickey on a train ride from New York to Los Angeles. At least, that the story that Walt would tell. As Malmberg explains, there's such a blurring between the man and the mouse that the little fictions are an inherent part of the history.

And what a history, convoluted as it is. This being a Disney+ documentary, it becomes more complicated in the retelling. Malmberg is given astonishing access to the Disney archives, and to the production of the first hand-drawn-and-painted cel animated Mickey Mouse cartoon in decades, "Mickey in a Minute." For anyone that grew up on Mickey cartoons (which would be everyone), there's something magical about seeing the original line pencil drawings for those original Mickey shorts being brought out of the archives like holy items - which, as one of the many talking heads notes, isn't far from true. There is no more ubiquitous pop culture figure, no more recognizable character globally. Malmberg analyzes this incredible legacy from within.

At the same time, there's always going to be the concern that this is state sanctioned history that will gloss over the ugliness. The racist cartoons, the out-of-control merchandising, and - significant from a cultural point of view and from the story Malmberg is telling - the fact that the Disney company have not known what to do with Mickey for most of his existence.

The reality is that Malmberg neither glosses over nor dwells upon those aspects. Instead, he strikes a line similar to Waking Sleeping Beauty, the SXSW 2010 documentary about the Disney animation Renaissance of the mid-1980s. That film came from a place of love for the art, if not always for the company, and Malmberg's extensive analysis of the steamboat captain who became a brave little tailor, a musketeer, Minnie's boyfriend, and so much more, keeps that love central.

Suitably, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse gets its world premiere at a time of contradiction. Mickey has arguably not been so popular, nor has Disney been so assured in how to handle him, in decades. At the same time, the Walt Disney Company is being widely castigated, both within and outside of the company, for CEO Bob Chapek's failure to condemn Florida's "don't say gay" bill - a moral failing that seems even worse since Disney moved 2,000 jobs in its Parks, Experiences and Products division from California to Lake Nona, just outside of Orlando.

What would Mickey do? Maybe Disney should think about that plucky little fellow that embodies joy for a moment. As Malmberg notes, Mickey is bigger than Disney now, a phenomenon who has survived all attempts at cultural subversion. We have made him as much as Walt did. Even if he has been, is, and always will be imperfect, Mickey tries to do the right thing.

Don't miss our interview with director Jeff Malmberg, "The Mouse in Everyone's House," March 11.

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere

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