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Happy 90th birthday, Mickey Mouse!

Everyone's favourite cartoon rodent conjurs the innocence and joy of bygone times

The average lifespan of a mouse is a fleeting two to three years, so when a certain mouse celebrates his 90th birthday on November 18th, 2018, some of us may be incredulous. But this isn’t a regular mouse by any means: in fact, this mouse is nothing short of extraordinary.  

He’s a cultural icon, an unmistakable face, a timeless friend and his name is Mickey Mouse.

Like many people, I first encountered the world of Disney and Mickey Mouse as a child. The impression was immediate: this wasn’t just another cartoon character, but a creation that was very clearly something special.

As with characters like Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse’s ability to transcend time and make generations of people happy set him apart from other mascots. Given the immense cultural impact Disney has had on so many of us, celebrating Mickey Mouse is in many ways like celebrating our own lives and the continued resonance the arts have.

Yet still, it can remain hard to believe that 90 years after this simple animated mouse made his first appearance, his popularity continues to inspire anyone who can maintain being young at heart.

Indeed, it was the dream of two young-hearted animators that brought the world’s most famous mouse into existence.

The year was 1928, and two 27-year-old buddies from Kansas City joined together to brainstorm ideas for a new animated character. Their names were Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, and although they were then obscure nobodies, they (especially Disney, of course) would soon find themselves celebrated worldwide. The Walt Disney Studios was not quite five years old in 1928, but Disney knew the key to breaking through in the field of animation was to create something totally innovative. With the creation of Mickey Mouse, innovation is exactly what he delivered.

When a tame mouse appeared at Disney’s desk, the proverbial light bulb went off and he rushed to tell his animator Iwerks his idea for an animated mouse. And so, “Mickey” was born.

After months of arduous production work to create a click track for the musicians, the world received its first official introduction to Mickey on November 18th, 1928 in the short film Steamboat Willie. Produced on a budget of merely $5,000, its status as a hugely influential, groundbreaking, and classic work of early sound animation stands to this day, and was a precursor to all the success Walt Disney would eventually achieve.

In a time when silent films were still the norm, the idea of producing an animated feature with sound and pre-recorded music was bold and risky (traits that defined Walt Disney’s outlook on art). Mickey’s whistling and laughter, the sounds of the boat’s whistles and the musical animals were all recorded and synchronized with the picture, making it one of the very first animated films to have sound (and certainly amongst the most successful). Steamboat Willie’s legacy lies not only in its innovation in animation and sound techniques, but also in spearheading the American animation scene.

Thanks to Mickey Mouse, Disney was quickly transported out of obscurity. By the end of the decade, the mouse would become a household name. With merchandise galore, like the famous wristwatch, and increasingly bold short films like 1935’s The Band Master (the first coloured short), the mouse and the Disney empire were well on their way to changing popular culture forever.

For anyone who loves the arts, the work of Disney Studios is hard not to admire. With Mickey Mouse, we have all been given an eternal friend full of the innocence and joy of an earlier time. It’s what Walt Disney always envisioned.

Today, nearly everyone in the world knows the name and face of Mickey Mouse, and so on this, his 90th birthday, I’d like to wish that very famous mouse a very happy birthday.

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