Washington Post on Mickey

Wilmer Rivers rivers at seismo.CSS.GOV
Sun May 15 20:39:32 CEST 1994

The magazine section of today's issue of the Washington Post newspaper
contains a long article by Peter Carlson about the Walt Disney Corpora-
tion and their theme parks (since they are considering building a fifth
one, near Washington).  This article also contains some interesting
comments about Mickey himself, and I think the members of this list
would want to read those.  I hope the Internet police will allow me to
extract those remarks from the much longer article, which of course is
copyrighted by the Washington Post.

Most of the comments about Mickey are quotes from John Hench, who is
identified as "working for Disney since the '30s, painting backgrounds
on 'Dumbo', winning an Oscar for special effects on '20,000 Leagues
under the Sea', designing portions of all four Disney theme parks"
(including Disneyland, where the interview took place).  His comments
on Mickey begin with the character's creation, after Disney's distri-
butor had stolen from him the rights to Oswald Rabbit.

--------  begin Washington Post's copyrighted material here ----------

Disney responded by creating a new character, a mouse named Mickey.
His chief animator, Ub Iwerks, simply erased Oswald's long narrow ears,
replaced them with new round ears and fiddled a bit with the face.
Presto, a mouse!

That little change - from long ears to round ears - made Mickey's head
basically a series of three interlocking circles.  And that, says John
Hench, is the secret of Mickey's unprecedented international success.
Hench ought to know: He's been Mickey's "official portrait artist" for
40 years.  "There's power in that kind of arrangement of circles," he
says.  "His contemporary, Felix the Cat, has got a lot of points on him
and I think that activates a very old concept - that you can get hurt
around sharp points.  Round forms are definitely more friendly."

Round forms recall a mother's breast and a pregnant torso and a baby's
face and other good things, Hench says.  He swears he's seen ancient
fertility symbols that looked like Mickey.  "They were carried as some
kind of magic."

[Carlson then discusses how Mickey has changed from the mischievous
Iwerks character to today's bland corporate representative.]

"As Mickey's personality softened, his appearance changed," wrote Har-
vard biologist Stephen Jay Gould in _The Panda's Thumb_.  Gould traced
Mickey's evolution from a ratty rodent with a long, pointy snout to a
cute little creature with the round, soft features and big eyes of a
human baby.  Why does a Harvard biologist pay attention to such mat-
ters?  Because the cute-ification of Mickey illustrates a famous evolu-
tionary theory theory, which holds that human beings - stuck with off-
spring requiring years of labor-intensive nurturing - are biologically
programmed to get all gooey and gaga over animals with babyish fea-
tures.  That, he says, is why we love the Mouse: Mickey "reflects the
unconscious discovery of this biological principle by Disney and his

Hench disagrees slightly: He says the artists _consciously_ made Mickey
look like a cute little kid.

[Carlson and Hench run into a group of kids gathered around the Disney-
land employee in the Mickey costume.]

Hench acknowledges, however, that the costumed Mickeys bother him.
"The walk-around Mickey is, to my mind, a monstrous distortion of what
the real figure should be.  They have to get a human being in there,
and human beings are built differently."  He shrugs.  "But it still

Hench sits on a park bench, takes out a piece of paper and starts
sketching Mickey.  With a couple quick strokes, he creates the famous
ears.  "They're always circles, no matter which way he looks," he says.
Then he adds Mickey's rounded hairline and pointed widow's peak.  "This
gives him his eternally surprised expression - surprised and delighted
somehow."  He smiles.  "And he _is_ delighted.  He's a kind of pro-life


Wilmer Rivers

More information about the DCML mailing list