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‘New’ Mickey: Big Cheese of ‘MouseWorks’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The idea of Mickey Mouse, who starred in some of the most beautifully animated cartoons in the history of the medium, appearing in limited television animation sounds almost blasphemous. But “Disney’s Mickey MouseWorks,” the new series from Walt Disney Television Animation premiering Saturday at 11 a.m. on ABC, has a bright, fresh look, and while no one would mistake these cartoons for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in “Fantasia,” they look downright lavish by TV standards.

One of toughest problems the “MouseWorks” artists faced was figuring out just who Mickey Mouse is in 1999. Mickey may be the most famous animated character in the world, but his personality and appearance have changed repeatedly over the years. He’s been an impetuous rascal, a suave charmer, a loyal patriot, a children’s entertainer, a genial suburbanite and a corporate symbol. Which one is the real Mickey?

“It’s been difficult, getting a grip on Mickey,” says co-executive producer Roberts Gannaway. “We’re producing more Mickey films than the studio’s done in years and years, so there’s going to be a certain amount of exploration. Our goal was to draw some of Mickey’s personality back into him. For inspiration, we looked to the ‘30s Mickey, the more mischievous Mickey. Once we get comfortable, we may see how feisty we can make him, without him becoming Bugs Bunny or a Tex Avery character. We’re not interested in making him into somebody else.”

For the old artists, Mickey was always Walt’s alter ego. Roy E. Disney, the son of Walt’s brother Roy O. Disney and vice chairman of the Walt Disney Co., agrees: “Mickey really is Walt in a lot of ways. Mickey has all those nice impulses Walt had, the kind of gut-level nice guy he was.”

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Walt Disney made his first sketches of Mickey in 1928, on the train back to Los Angeles from New York, after he lost the rights to Oswald Rabbit, the star of his fledgling studio’s cartoon series. He based the character on a mouse he had adopted as a pet and wanted to call him Mortimer, but his wife rejected the name.

“It’s been told so many times that you don’t know what’s true,” adds Roy E. Disney. “The name part I’m sure of: I often heard my father and Walt say, ‘Thank God we didn’t name him Mortimer!’ ”

Ub Iwerks, Disney’s top animator at the time, designed the first versions of the character, but Walt supplied his personality and--until 1947--his voice.

The early Mickey Mouse was a rubbery-limbed scamp. During 1928-29, the Disney artists added his trademark three-fingered white gloves and replaced his blocky black feet with light-colored shoes. As the animators polished their skills, Mickey grew rounder, more solid and more appealing.

But as Mickey grew more popular, especially with children, he eventually grew tamer--and less interesting. In a 1949 interview in Collier’s magazine, Walt summarized the problem: "[Mickey] grew into such a legend that we couldn’t gag around with him. He acquired as many taboos as a western hero--no smoking, no drinking, no violence.”

As a result, Disney produced fewer and fewer Mickey cartoons. Between 1941 and 1965, the studio released 109 Donald Duck shorts, 49 Goofys and only 14 Mickeys. In most of them, Mickey was just the straight man; Pluto got the laughs. In recent years, the artists at Walt Disney Feature Animation have used the classic characters in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” (1983), “The Prince and the Pauper” (1990) and the 1995 short “Runaway Brain.” Although he was well animated, Mickey generally remained a passive character who responded to actions the others initiated.

But the “MouseWorks” artists hope to keep Mickey from simply being a reactive character.

“Keeping him active has been a challenge,” concedes Gannaway. “We’re doing a series of 90-second cartoons that were designed to showcase each character’s personality. In ‘Mickey to the Rescue,’ we put him in cliffhanger situations from the first second: Minnie is a damsel in distress and Mickey has to rescue her.”

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“We went back to Walt’s theories about Mickey being the little guy, the underdog who comes out a winner, just because he tries really hard and has determination and spirit,” adds co-executive producer Tony Craig. “For the look of the character, we drew our inspiration from the Mickey animated by Fred Moore, Ward Kimball and Walt Kelly in 1941 in ‘The Nifty Nineties’ and ‘The Little Whirlwind.’ It’s basically that version of the design, with slightly larger hands and feet and a more streamlined body.”

Donald Duck’s Persona Translates Well to Show

Recapturing the personalities of the other classic Disney characters proved less problematic. Gannaway notes, “Donald translates very well--his impatience is timeless. We’re doing a Donald cartoon where he has to set up a computer--it’s no different than Donald trying to fix the clock in [1937’s] ‘Clock Cleaners.’ ”

“A character whose personality wasn’t defined in the old cartoons is Daisy,” adds Craig. “We’ve made Daisy a passive-aggressive character who’ll push Mickey and Minnie to the limits--not on purpose, she just takes advantage of them being so nice until they finally crack.”

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“We felt there should be someone who tests how nice Mickey and Minnie are,” says Gannaway.

While the Fox animated prime-time hit “The Simpsons” introduced a new style of storytelling in animation that uses large numbers of characters and celebrity guest voices, Gannaway and Craig deliberately kept the population of their show small. They’re introducing a few new characters and reviving a few supporting players--Clarabelle Cow, Chip ‘n’ Dale and Humphrey, the incorrigible bear who matched wits with Donald in some of the fastest and funniest cartoons Disney produced during the ‘50s.

“This time, Donald is going to have a modern, up-to-date RV, which is much nicer than Humphrey’s cave,” says Craig. “When Donald goes out fishing, Humphrey goes in to take advantage of all those amenities.”

The question of whether Donald should have a computer or an RV reflects a major problem the “MouseWorks” artists faced: how to make decades-old characters seem fresh without losing the qualities that made them popular.

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For years, audiences watched Mickey, both as the host of the original “Mickey Mouse Club” and in the vintage cartoons that aired on ABC’s “Disneyland” in the ‘50s, and NBC’s “The Wonderful World of Color” in the ‘60s. Gannaway, Craig and crew are hoping a new generation of viewers will tune in to see his latest antics. If the handful of cartoons available for preview are an indication of the quality of the series, their chances look good.

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* “Disney’s Mickey MouseWorks,” premieres at 11 a.m. Saturday on ABC. The network has rated it TV-Y (suitable for very young children).


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