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After decades of serving primarily as a brand ambassador for the Walt Disney company, Mickey Mouse is back, headlining a theatrically released cartoon once again in “Get a Horse,” the much-buzzed about short preceding Disney’s new animated feature “Frozen.”
Even better, Mickey got to work hand in three-fingered-glove again with his creator, Walt Disney – the man, as well as his legendary company.
In Mickey’s first film short since 1995’s “Runaway Brain,” he gets to stretch his range: “Get a Horse” returns the mouse, who of late has been depicted as a plucky but mild-mannered everyman, to the original persona he displayed when he debuted 85 years ago this week in 1928’s “Steamboat Willie – a spunky, mischievous underdog who boldly turned the tables on bullies.
The project grew out of Disney’s notion to develop concepts and ideas starring Mickey for television, but a pitch from director Lauren MacMullen, a veteran of “The Simpsons” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” proved so compelling in its plan to capture the charm and magic of Mickey’s original shorts while pushing new creative envelopes that the idea was given the feature treatment.
“I was saying during that meeting, like, 'Hey, when was the last time you can remember that Mickey made you laugh?'” says MacMullen. “I think it's been a while, and I think everyone can embrace a mouse who can make you laugh.”
“I knew that we had such great hand-drawn animators in the studio, and I love hand-drawn animation," Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter says. "So I said, 'Let's do something that really is like the [Mickey’s co-creator] Ub Iwerks animation of the first three Mickey Mouse cartoons. And then have it break out and then use the new technology of 3-D to make it really surprise you.”
Returning Mickey to his rascally roots and dreaming up the more left-field kind of animation gags that characterized his early outings creatively energized MacMullen’s team. “Back in that [original] era, you got a sense that he would immediately do anything that could come into his head, and there was a definite scampishness, a kind of underdog delight in the way he interacted with his environment,” she says, adding that over the years, as the mouse became emblematic of Disney itself, he became “a victim of his own success,” resulting in a watering down of his on-screen persona.
“Everyone really, really wanted him to be good,” she says, “and then as other characters came along like Donald Duck – Donald got to be the angry one, so Mickey could no longer be angry. As the stable of characters joined him he was forced to kind of grow up and be more of a dad.” Some long-forgotten members of that early stable, including Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Bow and Mickey’s nemesis Peg-Leg Pete, also resurface for “Get a Horse.”
Mickey’s retro design, authentic to his first appearance, returns alongside the retro attitude, fitting for the inventive short that deftly and deliriously mixes old school black-and-white hand-drawn animation with cutting edge 3D CGI-rendered action.
Working with Mickey’s stripped-down design proved initially challenging for Disney’s ultra-sophisticated animators, who were used to working in more lushly rendered contexts. “They learned that if you do things with less sweeping, beautiful in-betweens you can make things a little sharper and a little funnier,” says MacMullen. “We'd say, 'Hey, strip it down to this and this.' And after a couple tries, it would get a laugh in the room. Then they were kind of sold on that path.”
“Get a Horse” would eventually offer an ultimate test of inventiveness when it was decided to reunite Mickey with the original voice artist that provided his familiar halting falsetto voice for the first 20 years of his screen career: Walt Disney himself. Prior to his death in 1965, Disney provided all of Mickey’s dialogue throughout the 1940s and again on TV in the 1950s for the five-year run of “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
“What happened was we started dropping in some [dialogue] from the old shorts and Walt just sounded so right,” reveals MacMullen. “I think it was a friend of mine at a party who said ‘You should really just make it all Walt, and then you can actually put his name in the credits after X number of years.'” McMullen brought the notion to Lasseter, “and John was completely like, 'You have to do this!'”
The novel notion required the “Get a Horse” team to comb through every Mickey Mouse short featuring Disney’s voice searching for recyclable sound bytes, frequently tweaking the storyline to accommodate their discoveries – and cover for missing dialogue. “A couple of the words that we desperately needed we could not find anywhere, and one of them was the word 'red,’” recalls MacMullen. “Mickey’s just leapt out through the screen, he stands up and he starts feeling his pants, realizing that he's in 3D and color. He looks up and says 'Red!' – like, 'Oh my god, it's red! I've been black and white all my life.' And we could not find that word anywhere!” In the end, the sound team spent weeks “cobbling together different bits of the word 'red' – like a 'rrruh' and a 'ed'. When it got down to the things we really, really needed, it did get pretty tough.”