Mickey Mouse and Schizophrenia: Chronically Unstable Setting in Transcendental Fiction
Traditionally and by plain definition, transmedia storytelling follows the manifestations of a single narrative in multiple media forms. This narrative tethers the different elements and pulls them into a composite blob that collectively comprises the world, the universe being built. This definition is inclusive to many endeavors to tie multiple narratives into a cohesive, immersive story, but it simultaneously pushes more splintered examples of storytelling that spans various media into confused, ambiguous territory. If a series of short stories that take place in a wide variety of realities and universes is connected by a set of recognizable and familiar characters, is the lack of a cohesive, overarching narrative really such an integral attribute of transmedia fiction that an exclusive line in the sand needs to be drawn here? While such a question is inherently based in subjective interpretation and can’t be answered definitively outside of conformity to dry, restrictive dictionary definitions, I believe that these fragmented, inconsistently set narrative bundles tethered by a cast of recognizable personalities have a great deal of nuance and richness that can be revealed through analysis as a collective transmedia fiction. That being said, no stories describe the kind of schizophrenic, protean transmedia experience I’m talking about better than brought to life by Disney- namely those of Mickey Mouse.
When the iconic character that would eventually go by Mickey Mouse first made his public debut in Steamboat Willie in 1928, he entered the American imagination as a resident of a very distinct, cartoony world that was flexible, inconsistent, and dynamic from the beginning. The mice were wearing clothes and operating a steamboat while farm animals remained simple and unintelligent, Mickey’s body could stretch for days, and personification of inanimate objects ran rampant- the physical possibilities of this rubber hose cartoon world seemed limited only by the gags Walt Disney and crew could come up with. It was, after all, a cartoon- anything that could be drawn fell into the realm of the possible.
Mickey quickly taught his viewers that, in order to enter his world, they wouldn’t merely have to suspend their disbelief, but turn it off entirely. As his quick ascension to nearly world-wide fame and recognition indicated, this was not a difficult task for most people. So when the settings of Mickey’s animated shorts started becoming as varied as inconsistent as the cartoon physics he obeyed, when he’d be the size of a small child living among humans as a maestro in one installment and an appropriately sized mouse living among his own species in another, it seems nobody batted an eyelash except maybe to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Every new episode of Mickey Mouse’s antics invited the viewer into a new universe that was only tethered to those before it by the inherent qualities that his characters possessed- regardless of their varying manifestations. Alongside their reasonably consistent appearances, this is what made the characters recognizable. His relationships with his animated co-stars-Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy- were never static in that they’d always interact under new circumstances, even if the innate, omnipresent, essential qualities of the characters would create consistency in the ways they viewed and interacted with each other. It was as if Mickey and his friends were reincarnated in each appearance with the same defining character qualities in hundreds of different universes within the greater narrative of their story as cartoon actors.
As recognizable Mickey’s character has remained over the last 85 years, neither him nor his cast have been denied personal growth, development, and general change. The first major shift for Mickey was in the early 1930’s when his popularity corralled in a huge demographic of children, and his mischievous, anti-hero demeanor that we see in his early work began to conflict with his responsibilities as Disney’s official Mascot. Lightening up his less-friendly performances, the t00-often greedy and scheming Donald Duck is stepped in to provide the much-needed edge that had garnered so much interest and artistic integrity for the Disney creations.
Mickey would still retain his mischievous tendencies, as can be seen in such performances as Fantasia, but it wasn’t for a long time that Mickey would show his morally questionable side again. It seems to me that Mickey’s temporary decline in popularity in the late 40’s coincided with Disney’s attempt to downplay his inner troublemaker, but it could have also been that a decade-and-a-half of such extreme popularity simply petered out after it ran out of steam. As Mickey’s long acting career inevitably placed him in different creative agendas over the years, he naturally found himself stylized in a fairly wide variety of ways over that span of time. It’s highly worth mentioning that just this year, a new series of shorts involving Mickey and his co-stars started airing that is a beautiful return to the form of his early years, very apparently created as an homage to his less-than-humble beginnings. In these new shorts, Mickey’s original image, anti-hero demeanor, and musical cartoon-short format are boldly revived and lovingly crafted in an echo of his original performances.
Branching out to make appearances in his very own comic series in 1930, Mickey’s presence in media other than Disney animation was established almost immediately. However, because Disney’s rough experiences trying to work with characters he didn’t own the intellectual rights to (see: Oswald Rabbit) led to the established Disney tradition of being overprotective and selective about how their franchises get used, Mickey’s transmedia opportunities were limited to Disney agendas. Even still, Mickey’s most profound presence outside of the cartoon world was, and continues to be, his presence in reality. His popularity and recognition as an icon and American symbol gave him such a presence that he, as a cartoon character, won an Academy Award in 1943, not to mention the many nominations he received. At the award ceremony for the 1932 Academy Awards, Mickey was depicted walking with the other human nominees that year, drawing them into into his cartoon world just as he had invaded theirs. In 1978, on his 50th anniversary, Mickey’s acknowledgement as a prominent American cultural figure allowed him to become the first cartoon character to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The implementation of Disney Theme parks as a perceived “home” for Disney characters only cemented his presence in the real world. This is not necessarily as a physical presence, but as a conceptually living ambassador to the multiplicity of fragmenting fantasy universes created by Disney. Mickey Mouse exists transcendentally in America’s collective mind in the same vein that Santa Claus exists through performative inclusion into western cultural practice and belief.
The magical world of Disney, the realm in which all whimsical Disney tales take place, establishes a sense of relevant connection between these narratives that are all tied together by the transcendental cultural icon of Mickey Mouse. Stories that would otherwise have next-to-nothing connecting them are linked by a commonly acknowledged sense of Disney-ness, and it’s through places like the Disney Theme parks and unifying Disney image that this fantasy experience is made real in collective American thought. This is further reinforced through the repetition of familiar voice actors and characters in multiple Disney Films, as can best be seen Disney films such as Jungle Book and Robin hood which essentially have the same characters and in the unabashedly self-referential series of Disney-Pixar films.
On a more contemporary note, Disney’s transmedia presence has been enriched as his long lifespan saw him through to the digital era. Mickey had many video-game appearances throughout the last 30 years, though ironically none have brought him nearly as much critical acclaim and attention as his role in the unexpectedly harmonious melding of franchises that was Kingdom Hearts. The successful meshing of Disney and Final Fantasy franchises wasn’t the only surprising thing about the game, as it was rarity enough for Disney to allow their intellectual properties to be wielded by any outside forces. It was controversial enough when Mickey Mouse shared the big screen with long-time rival Bugs Bunny in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and even then Disney made absolutely sure that both Bugs and Mickey would share the exact same amount of screen time down to the frame.
Kingdom Hearts was an especially interesting segment of Mickey and Disney’s transmedia history because, much like Disney World, it acted as a hub in which many different Disney universes were depicted as falling in the same universe. It allowed for Mickey, as ruler of his own Disney world that seems to retain the setting of his old cartoons, to physically travel between the worlds of different Disney movies and artfully weave them all together through a brand new unifying narrative.
Mickey Mouse’s appearance may not adhere to a single, fictional storyline that attempts to synthesize it’s many parts into a unifying canon, but I would argue that Mickey Mouse finds relevance to transmedia by the unifying narrative created by his real-world presence. Mickey has been an honored Disney actor and American cultural icon since soon after his debut, and since then he has been transcending the limits of his original media and making a real story for himself in the world’s cultural history. Likewise, I would call Mickey’s profoundly relevant story as a Disney representative and cultural icon a transcendental fiction- a fiction that transcends into reality in human thought, belief and performance. Mickey and friends are certainly not the only characters whose stories I would call transcendental: the transmedia performances of Mickey’s Warner Brothers counterpart Bugs Bunny (see: Space Jam) and Gorillaz, a UK band consisting of cartoon members living simulaneously in our world and their own are only some examples of these pervasive narratives that transcend the limitations of their primary media and invade the far grander story of our everyday lives.