Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Archive for November, 2018

Celebrating the Spirit of Mickey Mouse

Mickey Breaks the PaperI usually prepare to watch ABC-TV Disney special events with somewhat low expectations. For the most part, I find them to be very long commercials for whatever Disney is promoting. I’ll give you some other thoughts on Mickey’s 90th Spectacular in a bit. But, that’s not what I want to talk about.

As we continue the celebration of his 90 years, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Mickey. It’s hard not to, since the Disney Company is using the birthday as a major promotion. Who can blame them? There are few characters in the history of print, movies or television that have stood the same test of time. As originally created by Walt and animated by Ub Iwerks, he was no more complicated than, and bears a strong resemblance to Walt and Ubs first successful character, Oswald, the lucky rabbit.

mickey and oswald

Oswald &  Mickey

Walt & Ub

Walt and Ub

And, while, Ub Iwerks seems primarily responsible for the early design and almost all of the animation of the early Mickey shorts, it was Walt who who not only gave him his voice, but also his spirit. As I wrote in my post “Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – Inseparable”, it was Walt’s personality, sense of humor, drive to succeed and optimism to which audiences responded and made Mickey popular.

The Mickey of Plane Crazy and other early shorts was a mischievous troublemaker. In many of the shorts, Mickey gets himself into trouble, then finds a way to “save the day”. He gives other characters the raspberry, checks out Minnie’s legs and twirls a cat by the tail.

He was a precursor to many of the movie anti-heroes the world would cheer for decades later in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, On the Waterfront, Taxi Driver, Mad Max, Rebel Without a Cause, the Godfather and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series. The shorts were driven by putting Mickey in various situations then driving the plot with the kind of gags that Walt loved. I’m more partial to the Mickey we see starting in the late 30s. He’s become more of an “everyman”. Crazy things still happen to him and around him, but he’s generally more of a good guy,role model.

I can’t say for certain why of all the Disney characters created under Walt’s direct supervision , why I’m partial to Mickey. Mickey was literally out of the picture during my childhood. After 1953’s  short, Simple Things, Mickey didn’t appear on film again until 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol. It was probably for the best. “Simple Things” Mickey feels stodgy and uninteresting. Pluto gets more screen time than Mickey. And, overall, the quality of the piece feels more like the Saturday morning cartoon lineup of the 60s and 70s right down to the clunky sound effects and skimpy backgrounds.

I got that same feeling of disappointment watching the ABC-TV Mickey Birthday special. It felt more like a long advertisement for everything but Mickey. I understand that Disney, for business reasons, continues to try and stay connected with a young audience. But, as a child of the baby boom era, I felt like a chaperone at a young person’s dance. The musical guests, which I’m sure were loved by the young audience in the theater, were interrupted by brief snippets of Mickey’s history. The character of Mickey seemed more like a museum piece than a symbol of the Disney Company’s continued growth and success. But, enough about that.

My generation got only small doses of Mickey in parades and special appearances and, if memory serves, Disney would occasionally dust off an old short starring Mickey. I have a strong sense memories of going to a 40th birthday party for Mickey in the old Rainbow Club in the Empire State Building when I was 10 years old. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the event and I can’t find any on the internet. Anyone who has photos, I’d love to see them. Does absence makes the heart grow fonder?

Mickey in the 1970s

 

The_Band_ConcertOr, am I drawn, like earlier generations, to a character that is both timeless, and of a time when audiences marveled at Steamboat Willie’s first of its kind synchronized sound, or the first ever color cartoon, The Band Concert. Behind Mickey, though, was Walt, continually striving for something new. Not just to grab audiences, which he remained focused on for his adult life. But, Walt needed to always move forward. Walt bet his entire studio on the idea that sound would revolutionize animated film. He would do the same with his personal fortune to bring Disneyland to life. Mickey was the messenger for all of this innovation.

disney and mickey on disneyland tvThe thought I have is, Walt’s inspiration, that lead to Mickey, was created at a low point in his career. The success of his studio depended entirely on the character’s success. So, the “magic” that would lead to Walt’s success would have been concentrated in Mickey Mouse. The character was the seed out of which his empire would grow. Walt never stopped chasing his dreams. That kind of spirit is powerful.

I’ll admit, that I’m a skeptic when it comes to life after death and the supernatural. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that Mickey carries the spirit of achievement and the creative spark that started with Steamboat Willie and continues to this day. The more I think about this brand of pixie dust, the more I like it. It’s comforting and exciting to believe that Walt is still with us. And, it’s great that, in the form of  a symbol, Mickey Mouse, he continues to do the things Walt loved most – innovate and entertain. So, Happy Birthday to Mickey Mouse.  A creation for the ages.

Walt Norman Rockwell

 

Advertisements

Wither the Muppets?

sesame streetMy kids grew up as regular visitors to the Street of Sesame. It was populated by colorful, friendly creatures and kind, smart, people. The Muppets taught my kids important things. How to count, recognize the letters of the alphabet. Also, how to make friends and be a friend, respect others, and accept the differences between us, to name a few important lessons.

At the same time my kids were gettin’ learned, I could enjoy the irreverence, the wackiness the winks and the never ending, parody-infused humor the Muppets brought to those of us on adult streets everywhere. They taught us how to laugh at ourselves and that the “classics”, whether books, music or movies, you could be take them out from behind the museum glass and play. They taught us to not take ourselves too seriously.

muppet tv

So, what happened? Why have the Muppets not found their audience in the 21st

SherlockHemlock2

Sherlock Hemlock

century? Why is it that Walt’s brand of entertainment far outlasted him, yet Jim Henson’s legacy seems to fade with each passing year? The Muppets have done feature films, television, appeared on countless talk shows, award shows and even have their own hit songs like The Rainbow Connection. Is Disney hiding them in an undisclosed location, plotting a massive marketing campaign? Or is something else going on?

Both men have rightly been called geniuses. Not because they cured a hated disease or helped put a man on the moon. (Although Walt did make that happen every day in early Disneyland, and there was the Muppets in Space. But, I digress) They had a genius for finding new ways to entertain us by taking something old and making it new.

 

dwarfs crying

Even the candle is crying

Walt took animation, which was sill in its infancy, and made it into high art, while using story to create enduring characters. Disneyland was a new kind of entertainment based on old style fairs or amusement parks. His animated and live action movies and their characters continue to charm, amuse and evoke other emotions. And, they have become known the world over. When Disney builds theme parks in other countries, they include Mickey Mouse and many other characters that are as recognizable in Shanghai as they are in Anaheim.

 

fantasia posterThe years have not dulled the enthusiasm even for characters who have not been seen on the big screen for decades, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. All of this happened, even as Walt pushed the limits of what audiences would accept in animation. After the success of Snow White and Pinocchio, Walt took a left turn and gave us Fantasia. Then he took a trip to South America which resulted in very Latino feeling Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. In between those two was Victory Through Air Power, the last feature Walt directed himself, which was more propaganda than entertainment.  He planned but never finished a surrealist piece with Salvador Dali (Finally released in 2003). Audiences might have grumbled, but they still kept coming.

 

THE MUPPETSJim Henson took puppetry out of the fairs and children’s birthday parties and created his own group of enduring characters. He showed us that even puppets that were blue or red, fuzzy and had other un-human like features could, not only entertain, but touch our hearts. I would say that Kermit, Miss Piggy, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are just as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. The appeal of the Muppets bridged generations.

The younger crowd laughed and learned with Bert, Ernie and The Count. While adults could laugh at the sneaky and wacky humor of Fozzy Bear, Sam Eagle and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. A string of popular movies (3 in Henson’s lifetime) combining puppets with actors proved that the Muppets could “act”.

And the weekly Muppet show, which ran for 5 seasons was a magnet for every big name in Hollywood to share the spotlight with Miss Piggy, a group of chickens or other Henson Workshop creations.

Like Disney, Henson challenged his audiences. The movie Dark Crystal and Labyrinth moved away from vaudeville slapstick and pushed further in to Fantasy at the same time he advanced the art of puppetry. In television, Fraggle Rock was intended to be an educational program to help kids deal with complex issues around the world.

After Henson’s passing, the deal to sell the company to Disney was completed and park fans have been enjoy Muppetvision 3d for many years. More recently Muppet characters are making regular appearances in Liberty Square above the Hall of Presidents. But recent attempts to revitalize the Muppet franchise, Muppets Most Wanted, failed with audiences who were less enthralled than the critics. The recent attempt to restart the franchise by going back to television, one of their earliest successes, was cut short after just one season.

Muppets_LibertySquare

Muppets in LIberty Square

Oz and Henson

Oz & Henson

Some have argued, like original Muppeteer, Frank Oz, that Disney just doesn’t get the Muppets. While others seem to think that the Muppets brand of entertainment was a product of it’s time and simply doesn’t translate into today’s reality focused offerings. I think it may be a combination of the two. Perhaps, Jim Henson did not have an opportunity to set the franchise off on a long term track as Walt did with multiple entertainment properties.  Then, Disney took too long to produce anything Muppet related, thereby losing any momentum that might have existed with audiences. I remember being excited about the prospect of deep pockets and potential creative input from the Disney organization. Then, radio silence for 12 years, before a movie was released. Pixar hardly missed a beat after being brought under the Disney brands. And Mickey Mouse went 30 years without being featured in a Disney film. But, it didn’t seem to dull his appeal.

MickeysChristmasCarol

1983

I’m a big fan of the Muppets style of entertainment. Maybe, in the final analysis, the very nature of Muppet humor doesn’t appeal to as many. Kermit is lovable. But, while Mickey started out as more of an impish troublemaker he evolved into a more lovable character with broad appeal.

mickey-mouse-gallery

Kermit was always lovable. But he seems stuck in a world of vaudeville, where many of the real jokes go right over the heads of audiences that might extend the franchise — children, who eventually grow into adults and introduce their kids to the characters. Miss Piggy is not very approachable, Dr. Teeth and The Medicine show is product of a 60’s musical era, and Fozzy is, well, an acquired taste for many who grew up with the Carol Burnet Show or even Your Show of Shows.

themuppetsgroupshot

It’s still possible that Disney will find a way to keep the Muppets in the mainstream. They are giving the Muppet Babies TV cartoon a reboot. It’s possible that will be the way to gain some traction. Unfortunately, in the face of the blockbuster dollars other franchises like Marvel and Star Wars bring in, the Muppets will forever be an afterthought. I certainly hope not.

 

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: