“It was all started by a mouse,” Walt Disney says in the opening of a new documentary about his company’s most famous symbol. “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse” begins streaming on Disney+ Nov. 18 in celebration of the character’s birthday.
As editor of the award-winning documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about the life and career of Fred Rogers, director Jeff Malmberg clearly has an eye for analyzing cultural icons worth celebrating. He begins “Mickey” with legendary stories of how the mouse came to be, quickly delving into a complex but entertaining history of the character – and the place he’s occupied in people’s hearts for nearly a century.
Just as Mickey himself represents a whole host of ideas, so too does this story of a mouse. Taking on the history of the Walt Disney Company as a whole would be insurmountable, having to encompass hand-drawn animation, merchandising, streaming, amusement parks and cruise lines worldwide. By zooming in on the cultural impact of Mickey alone, the filmmakers make the journey fun and whimsical, in addition to thoughtful and informative.
The documentary is best when it focuses on Mickey’s recognizable role in world history. A particularly poignant moment reminds our divided society that the name “Mickey Mouse” is the same in every language. “Mickey” paints the character as a fixture in American history, evolving from the roaring ‘20s to the Great Depression, from World War II to 1960s counterculture, all the way up to today.
In a time when it feels like collective joy is in short supply, this universally-recognized icon elicits a myriad of emotions across generations. Thankfully, these memories and associations consist almost entirely of happiness, innocence and fun. But Malmberg’s expertly-edited film does not diminish the challenging moments in Mickey’s history, including outdated and prejudiced portrayals of race and gender.
Most of us have never known a world without the geometric mouse and his group of friends. He is a character we take for granted, whom some see merely as a corporate symbol of the 21st century. Late in the film, former CEO Bob Iger discusses the company’s role in bringing back Mickey’s significance as a symbol of joy and promise, aside from dollar signs. He and other talking heads provide refreshingly honest and welcome perspectives on a number of topics evoked by the company’s oldest character.
Well-structured with an 89-minute run time, “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse” features a wide range of voices, from fans and animators to executives and experts. An engaging portrait of a ubiquitous figure, it combines a gritty history with the wonder of childhood: a fitting but unflinching tribute to both the mouse and the man who created him.
Streaming Nov. 18 on Disney+.