We Can Do Better With Mickey Mouse, But Not Much

It’s my first working day of the new year, and here I am trying to inject nuance into online discourse about Disney. In other words, I’m thriving, moisturized, and in my lane. With the original version of Mickey Mouse entering the public domain this year, many people have seen the first attempts to capitalize on the expired trademark – namely a slasher film called Mickey’s Mouse Trap and a co-op horror game called Infestation 88 (later changed to Infestation: Origins for… reasons) – and decided we’d be better off with Disney just keeping the copyright on Mickey indefinitely.


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While I’m sure Disney’s lawyers appreciate that sentiment, here’s my take: it’s great when stories and characters enter the public domain, even if the art that’s born from it isn’t particularly good. We can and will see better uses for Mickey Mouse than Mickey’s Mouse Trap and Infestation: Origins now that he’s outside of Disney’s control, but not much better. But that’s an inherent issue with the character, not a problem with the existence of the public domain.

It should be easy enough to defend the public domain to Disney fans, because Disney wouldn’t exist without it. The earliest shorts and films were based on classic fairy tales by authors like Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm, but virtually all of Disney’s classics are based on characters and stories that exist within the public domain. That includes Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Mulan, Hercules, Pinocchio, Pocahontas – the list goes on and on. Adapting classic stories and putting its own twist on them is Disney’s entire brand. You cannot defend Disney’s right to own its own stories without acknowledging that all of its stories were borrowed from the public domain in the first place.

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Infestation 88 Has Already Changed Its Name Due To Nazi Connotations

Steamboat Willie horror game Infestation 88 has changed its name to Infestation: Origins due to certain connotations with the number 88.

Now that Mickey is in the public domain too, everyone is free to take the character and use him to tell their own stories. Just as Disney turned Rapunzel into Tangled and The Snow Queen into Frozen, anyone can tell a story about Mickey Mouse. Just because our first examples are uninspired horror adaptations doesn’t mean that’s the best we’re going to get. Though, I wouldn’t expect too much more in this particular case.

The problem with Mickey is that he’s not really a character and he doesn’t really have a story. He’s a logo, an icon, and he’s synonymous with the Disney brand, but there’s never been a particularly relevant Mickey story to adapt, or an interesting way to reimagine his character, because he doesn’t have one.

All the classic Mickey Mouse stories, perhaps ironically, are adaptations from stories in the public domain. A Christmas Carol, The Prince and the Pauper, The Three Musketeers, Mickey and the Beanstalk, and even The Brave Little Tailor are all classic stories that see Mickey playing different roles, rather than developing an identity for himself.

Mickey’s identity and personality have changed over the years, and for the most part all he’s generically heroic. The kind of kind, humble, fun-loving character that you want to associate with the Disney brand, but without any substance. In the documentary Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, Walt Disney explains that Donald Duck was introduced as a way to handle the negative emotions that audiences didn’t think were appropriate for Mickey to have. Similarly, Goofy became the embodiment of Mickey’s silliness. As early as the 1930s, Disney started to realize that Mickey didn’t have a strong identity.

The only way to approach Mickey as a character is to view him as the product and figurehead of the Disney corporation, and there’s no reason to use the actual Mickey name and design to do that. People have been able to tell stories that are in conversation with Disney without naming Mickey. James Ellroy did it with cartoonist Raymond Dieterling and his character Moochie Mouse in L.A. Confidential. The upcoming mobster boomer shooter Mouse doesn’t need the ‘real’ Mickey Mouse to leverage classic Disney iconography either. What is there to say about Mickey now that he’s in the public domain that couldn’t have already been said?

It’s unlikely that anyone will have a story to tell about Mickey that’s meaningful on its own without a connection to Disney, in the way that you don’t have to be familiar with The Snow Queen or Hans Christian Anderson to understand and appreciate Frozen. It’s not surprising that first attempts are horror-themed, and it’s not because horror is inherently lazy or a lower form of art. The future of Mickey Mouse is going to look a lot like his past: as a replacement for roles as familiar stories. Disney cast him as a musketeer, The Brave Little Tailor, and as Bob Cratchit, and now Infestation: Origin casts him as Freddy Fazbear.

The public domain is where stories and characters ascend to the level of myth and legend. It’s how a fairy tale from the 1700s called Beauty and the Beast can become one of the most iconic Disney movies of all time. It’s how characters like Dracula, Kings Kong, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, and Robin Hood can live on, be reinterpreted, and continue to grow. Someday characters like Superman, Indiana Jones, and James Bond will join them, opening up storytelling opportunities that aren’t strictly controlled by one megacorporation that cares more about its brand identity than telling unique or interesting stories. I wish that was the case for Mickey Mouse too, but from a storytelling perspective there’s just nothing there, and there never has been.

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