It would impossible to overstate the cultural significance of Mickey Mouse. The greatest modern example of the commodification of art into product, Mickey has spent the past hundred years reinventing himself as a Rorschach test for whatever capitalism needs him to be. Mickey is everything, everywhere, all at once.
The Disney+ documentary Mickey: The Story of a Mouse chronicles the mouse’s rise from mere cartoon short to a monolithic leviathan, occasionally with a keen sense of self-awareness. Born out of a loss to Walt Disney, who saw the rights to his initial creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit snatched away by the clutches of capitalism he would eventually learn to wield for himself, Mickey was a cultural force straight from the get-go. The documentary does a fabulous job explaining Disney’s early technical prowess, one of the first to bring sound to cartoons.
Director Jeff Malmberg does a good job bouncing between Mickey’s storied history, and the present day he continues to dominate. Mickey superfans will undoubtedly love the behind-the-scenes glimpses into Disney’s animation studios, particularly its revered archival department. Malmberg manages to provide some perspective into Disney’s importance to shaping animation without ever diving too deep into the weeds. The documentary never loses sight of its primary objective of serving as a victory lap for Mickey’s century of innovation and excellence.
The doc does spend a bit too much of its 89-minute runtime on a rotating series of interviews from Mickey superfans stating obvious platitudes about the mouse, often carrying the aura of a Trump administration cabinet meeting. With all the beautiful archival footage and behind-the-scenes perspectives, the laymen’s perspectives on Mickey’s status as a cultural behemoth grow a little tiresome after a while. There is a certain irony in the sequence covering Walt’s time creating wartime propaganda for the U.S. military, this documentary serving a similar purpose for the house that Mickey built.
The propaganda does grow a bit tedious in the third act, when the time comes to admit fault for some of Mickey’s past depictions, particularly in blackface. Mickey has not always been everything to everyone, a shining example of Disney’s core center-right conservative leanings that the company still embodies to this day. Malmberg does not shy away from the implications of Mickey’s commodification, albeit without an iota of self-awareness for the reality that this is truer today than ever before with soaring ticket prices to Disney Parks and an incrementalist approach to inclusivity that puts Disney far behind several of its corporate peers.
Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is entertaining propaganda that should appeal to Disney superfans while only superficially engaging with the realities of Mickey’s status as the bastion of American capitalism. Malmberg made a beautiful documentary, crafted with obvious love for its subject. There is little artistic merit to this work, not with the strings of Disney’s corporate overlords never far from the frame.