For 85 years, Mickey Mouse has been the brand ambassador for the Walt Disney Company, a plucky, affable everyman who still pleases and charms -- but a far cry from the original persona he displayed when he debuted in 1928: a spunky, mischievous underdog who boldly turned the tables on bullies like Peg-Leg Pete.
In his brand-new, black-and-white, 3D-animated short Get a Horse!, the mouse gets his old-school retro rebel attitude and design back -- as well as his original voice, Walt Disney himself, who provided Mickey’s dialogue throughout his first two decades on-screen.
As Disney prepares Get a Horse to debut in front of its latest animated feature, Frozen (in theaters November 27), director Lauren MacMullen and producer Dorothy McKim reveal the secrets behind the deliriously inventive cartoon and how it made the world’s most famous mouse roar again.
Fandango: What joy was it to be able to open up the Disney archives and figure out how to both capture that special magic of those early cartoons and push it forward?
Lauren MacMullen: It was a treat to do. I've always loved that era of animation because the characters are very simple and you can draw them really quickly. The animators here are pretty much the best in the business, so for them it was actually a little bit difficult because they had to simplify the way they animated and become less and less sophisticated. But one nice quality of that was they learned that if you do things with less sweeping, beautiful in-betweens you can make things a little sharper and a little funnier.
Fandango: Tell us about rediscovering the original personality of Mickey. Here he's a scrappier, livelier character than he's become over time.
MacMullen: Yes, he really has all this possibility to him. I think what happened with Mickey was that he was sort of a victim of his own success. Then, as other characters came along like Donald -- 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. But back in that [original] era, you got a sense that he would 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.
Fandango: What was the trickiest challenge about producing the cartoon?
Dorothy McKim: I feel like everything fell into place from the beginning because there was a clear vision of what the story was. I would say one of the biggest challenges was the 2D hand-drawn animators and the CG animators have never worked as closely as they had to for this film. And the effects: we wanted to stay true to what it would be, and make sure that Walt's voice was all the way through. It was pulling all of those components together [with] a very small crew. We had Lauren and myself, an associate producer, a couple of production people and the rest were artists.
MacMullen: Yeah, and Disney's a really busy place. We wound up borrowing people from Frozen or other projects, and just said, "Hey, could you come and help out for a week or something on this short?"
Fandango: Can you tell us more about using Walt Disney's voice throughout? That must have been both a treat and a headache at times.
MacMullen: You've got that right! What happened was we started dropping in some stuff from the old shorts. Walt just sounded so right. And also Billy Bletcher as [the original voice of] Pete.
A friend of mine 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." We told that to [Disney Animation Studios CCO] John Lasseter, and John was like, "You have to do this!" So we had to comb through all of the lines of all of the shorts that Walt did Mickey for. That necessitated sometimes changing the story a little bit.
A couple of the words that we desperately needed we could not find anywhere, and one of them was the word "red." Mickey’s on the stage and he's just leapt out through the screen -- he stands up and he starts kind of feeling his pants and realizing that he's in 3D and color. He looks up during this, and he says "Red!" Like, "Oh my God, it's red! I've been black and white all my life." We could not find that word anywhere, so in the end our assistant editor Danya Joseph wound up spending about two and a half weeks straight cobbling together different bits of the word "red," like a "rrruh" and an "ed." So yes, when it got down to the things we really, really needed, it did get pretty tough.
Fandango: Get a Horse! got rave reviews at D23 this year. Where do you think it's going to go now that people seem to be loving it so much?
MacMullen: Hopefully when this comes out in front of Frozen the response will be good enough to try another one. Personally, that would be something that I would love to be involved in.
Fandango: Generations of us grew up seeing short-form cartoons, be it Disney or Looney Tunes. Should we look for a renaissance?
MacMullen: I think there's no shame in calling something a cartoon. I was saying during [a] meeting, "Hey, when was the last time you can remember Mickey made you laugh?" I think it's been a while, and I think everyone can embrace a mouse who can make you laugh.