The documentary is all fluff and no substance.
Mickey: The Story of a Mouse asks a lot of questions. Why is the character of Mickey Mouse so iconic, and why is his simple, three-circle image so powerful the world over? What role does Mickey Mouse play in the development of not only American popular culture, but also of propaganda and cultural mythology? Are we going to talk about Walt Disney’s controversial views on utopian society, or the people his company displaced in an attempt to create that society? Of course not. Those questions would be addressed in a documentary, and what we’ve got here is an ad.
The Story of a Mouse functions as a 93-minute ad for Disney+, one that parents are likely to show their kids and then turn off before bedtime. The film features talking heads of children and veritable “Disney Adults” talking about the meaning of the mouse in their lives, chosen for a diversity that feels cheap and manufactured. Someone actually uses the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” to refer to Walt’s upbringing and career as an inspiration to others. A company spokesperson pretends to be flabbergasted at the idea that Disney has forever changed the history of copyright law with Mickey Mouse, and very little information is ever contested at the expense of Walt’s archival voiceover narration.
For what it’s worth, the film is worth watching if you are a fan of animation history. The middle is devoted to exploring the importance of hand drawing, the development of inkers (and the gendered role that tracing and inking subsequently took on), and how films like Fantasia (1940) changed both the cultural view of animation and Mickey as a character. Experts espouse the history of how Mickey and friends evolved throughout the twentieth century, responding and reacting to war, social movements, and mass commercialization. This history, while fascinating — at one point Minnie and Pluto starred in a spot encouraging kids to save and donate bacon grease to make bombs — is not trustworthy. It is outlined mostly by Disney employees hand-picked to appear in a documentary by and about Disney, for Disney+; though Tremolo Productions, the family-friendly company that made the film, is not owned by Disney, they were deep in the pocket of the mouse. I am baffled by articles claiming that the brief moments touching on Mickey in blackface were somehow daring, given that they were sandwiched between teary-eyed talking heads that imply that Mickey (as a sentient being) had to grow and change alongside white Americans and an abrupt shift to a promo for Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. This is not film, but PR.
And why shouldn’t it be? Why should I have gone into this film expecting anything more? Perhaps because The Story of a Mouse premiered at a film festival, not Disney’s annual shareholders meeting. What is the purpose of Disney premiering their content (and let’s not call it anything else at this point) at an event that isn’t dominated by their brand? If Disney hosted its own film festival, fans would flock and fawn over themselves. Showing Disney material elsewhere just feels superfluous now. The mouse already has a claw in every other facet of modern life, and if Mickey is always innovating, why not just cut to the chase? At least then we can better separate documentaries that dig deep into the heart of complicated matters from those producing made-for-TV fluff on mice and men.