When one hears the word “Disney,” one of the first images that may come to mind is the iconic symbol of a large circle with two smaller circles overlapping it like ears—the ubiquitous silhouette of Mickey Mouse, one of animator Walt Disney’s most popular characters. Mickey himself has played many roles in Disney films; he has appeared as a cowboy, a sailor, a pilot, a musician, and even a magician’s assistant. His personality has developed since his conception, going from a lovable scamp to a goof to a hero. As his personality changed, so did his iconic appearance. These changes were mourned by some, such as illustrator Maurice Sendak, who believed that the change in Mickey’s design changed him from a common street mouse to whom kids growing up in the Depression could relate, to a wide-eyed, commercialized character more palatable to a mainstream audience (Sendak, 192). However, despite the many changes to the character’s appearance and the many costumes he has worn, the Mickey Mouse’s famous saucer-like ears have remained consistent in representing the character—and the Disney brand—overall.
Before Mickey Mouse was a famous mouse, he was a relatively unknown rabbit—Oswald the Rabbit, to be exact. Oswald made his debut in 1927 in the short Hungry Hobos, created by Walt Disney and cartoonist Ub Iwerks (Kindelan, par. 3). The rights to the design on Oswald belonged to Universal Studios, under whom Disney and Iwerks were working at the time. When the studio would not give Disney more money for production, he and his cartoonist decided to work independently. They could no longer use the character Oswald, so they tweaked his appearance to transform him into the mouse we know today (par. 5). The newly created Mickey Mouse was nearly identical to Oswald the Rabbit, save for his new round, disc-like ears.
(Oswald the Rabbit)
Mickey Mouse made his debut in 1928 in Steamboat Willie and became an instant hit. Soon, more Mickey Mouse shorts were being released, referencing popular culture and other American icons; for example, in the short Plane Crazy, Mickey appears as a cartoon mouse version of the famed and beloved Charles Lindbergh. Mickey’s design soon became all the rage in America, thanks to Walt Disney’s marketing genius; it wasn’t long after these shorts were premiered that a plethora of Mickey Mouse merchandise was released, and a children’s fan club, the Mickey Mouse Club, was founded (Suddath, par. 3).
1935 became a big year for changes in Mickey’s appearance when Disney animator Fred Moore gave the mouse a pear-shaped body, pupils, white gloves, and a cuter, shortened nose. This new design was a huge improvement for the animators, who found the character’s previously circular body limiting in terms of movement (par. 4). Mickey now had a more human look than in his earlier appearances, in which his eyes were simply black dots and he wore no shoes or gloves (Quindlen, 202). The new elements of Mickey’s design also became iconic not only for the Disney brand but for animation at large: many cartoon characters created after Mickey, such as the Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny, Universal’s Woody Woodpecker, and even Nintendo’s Mario, mirrored the white gloves first seen on Fred Moore’s revamped Mickey Mouse.
Mickey’s also made his Technicolor debut that same year in The Band Concert (Suddath, par. 4). While Mickey had been drawn in color before, he had never been animated in color; this short marked the first time viewers saw the fully conceptualized Mickey Mouse design in motion. In The Band Concert, Mickey is wearing an oversized marching band conductor-esque costume rather than his usual shorts, but the animators stuck to the colors they had previously drawn Mickey wearing: gold and red. This color combination worked well together in an animated format, and from then on, Mickey’s traditional costume of just shorts used those colors.
Since then, Mickey’s appearance has only changed to keep up with new forms of media. The character has begun making appearances in 3D, such as in the 2002 Playstation 2 cult classic video game Kingdom Hearts or in the 2013 short Get A Horse! (Suddath, par. 7). Regardless of his new foray into 3D animation, Mickey’s flat, black ears are still representative of his overall character and the brand nostalgia associated with him. While his appearance, outfit, and even personality have changed over the years, the design of Mickey Mouse’s ears has solidified the character as an American cultural icon.
Kindelan, Katie. “Lost Inspiration for Mickey Mouse Discovered in England Film Archive.” ABC News. ABC News, 29 November 2011. Web. 10 March 2016.
Quindlen, Anna. “Modern Museum Celebrates Mickey.” A Mickey Mouse Reader. Ed. Garry Apgar. University Press of Mississippi, 2014. 200-203. Print.
Sendak, Maurice. “Growing Up with Mickey.” A Mickey Mouse Reader. Ed. Garry Apgar. University Press of Mississippi, 2014. 191-194. Print.
Suddath, Claire. “A Brief History of Mickey Mouse.” Time. Time, Inc., 18 November 2008. 10 March 2016. Web.