Mickey Mouse debuted to the public in 1928's Steamboat Willie. This “sound cartoon” featured Mickey as the low-ranking man on a polymorphous musical boat. Whereas Little Nemo was a silent cartoon with title cards for the dialogue, Steamboat Willie emphasizes the spectacle of Cinephone sound as well as animation. Priority is given to musical sound instead of dialogue; the characters communicate by grunts and whistles instead of speaking in English. This form of communication is extended to animals such as the musical goat and “inanimate” objects such as the boat's steam whistles.
The main characters of Steamboat Willie are neither purely human nor purely animal. Mickey and Minnie behave like humans in that they wear clothing, work jobs, carry possessions, form relationships, and occupy a privileged space above the “pure” animals, and yet their form is as much mouse as it is man. They occupy a space between human, animal, and animated ink and paper.
Even in this first Mickey Mouse film, there are hints of departure from the ideological world of Little Nemo. While the opening title card of Little Nemo gives artist Winsor McCay top billing, Steamboat Willie gives that honor to the character Mickey Mouse.
In a similar fashion, Nemo ends with a shot of McCay's thumb holding the final frame of animation, while Willie ends with an image Mickey and Minnie framing the words “The End.” Although Walt Disney (and animator Ub Iwerks) do receive credit, it is Mickey's name which is done up in a large, bold letters. Little Nemo may be a film about Winsor McCay, but Steamboat Willie is a film about Mickey Mouse.
As the Mickey Mouse “sound cartoons” progressed, the emphasis continued to be on Mickey Mouse as a personality instead of a historical/quasi-historical individual. No attempt is made to assign Mickey to a particular social role; whereas in Steamboat Willie Mickey is a boat worker, Plane Crazy (1928) has Mickey living on a farm, and The Opry House (1929) has him running a vaudeville theater.
Although Mickey's social role changes from film to film, his social relationships remain relatively static: Minnie Mouse is his romantic interest, Pete is his antagonist, Daisy the Cow is a hapless bystander to his antics. Later characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy expanded this network of social relationships which exist without any reference to time or place.
The era of color films only expanded Mickey and co.'s range of social and historical roles. In The Brave Little Tailor (1928), set in a cartoon approximation of medieval Europe, Mickey is the titular tailor, Goofy is a knight, and Minnie is a princess. Through the Mirror (1936) takes place in the world of Alice in Wonderland, while The Nifty Nineties (1941) is a love letter to 1890s America.
There are two common threads that run throughout these films, which can be said to serve as the identifiers by which consumers recognize Mickey Mouse. First is Mickey's “physical” appearance, which remains relatively unchanged even to today (exceptions include the addition of white gloves in 1929's The Opry House and slight revisions made for the addition of color in 1935's The Band Concert). While Mickey makes costume changes when appearing in different historical eras, he retains the trademark round ears which often serve as a symbol for the Disney Corporation as a whole.
Second are the previously mentioned social relationships. Even when social roles change from film to film, the emotional relationships remain unchanged almost without exception. Friends remain friends, romantic interests remain romantic interests, and antagonists remain antagonists. These fictionalized forms of mutual recognition are critical for maintaining emotional continuity between vastly different settings.
However, this form of recognition is not limited to the characters themselves. The viability of these fictionalized forms of recognition is dependent on the audience's acceptance and recognition of the bonds between the characters as valid. This is an essential feature of this third phase of the evolution of the cartoon: consumers, in recognizing the fictional recognitive relationships between cartoon characters, form their own non-fictional recognitive relationships with them. Though these relationships are not mutual in the sense that recognition between two humans are mutual, they are (as I will argue in more detail later) contingent upon the conditions of post- enlightenment sittlichkeit social recognition.
(Continued in Part Three)