Unseen Mickey Mouse sketches released for character’s 90th birthday

Mickey Mouse at 90: Unseen sketches of Walt Disney’s most famous creation are revealed to mark the cartoon character’s milestone birthday

  • Mickey Mouse debuted on our screens 90 years ago this week in the black and white film Steamboat Willie
  • Disney has released sketches from that and other films, including the first technicolour one released in 1935
  • Mickey was created after row that saw Universal take rights for Disney’s character Oswald The Lucky Rabbit

Fascinating unseen sketches of Mickey Mouse have been released by Disney to celebrate 90 years since the late cartoon creator brought him to life.

Exactly 90 years ago this week the world’s most famous mouse hit our screens for the first time. In 1928 Mickey, originally known as Mortimer, was black and white and animated using 15,000 drawings that would take between six months and two years to make into a short film.

But nearly a century later from DisneyLand theme parks across the globe, to amazing technicolour film creations, Mickey is a star in his own right and is celebrating a milestone birthday.

The sketches were drawn by Walt Disney himself in the 1920s and 1930s, with some taken from the very first Mickey film Steamboat Willie in 1928 and the first colour film, The Band Concert in 1935.  

Mickey was Disney’s breakout star but were it not for a contract dispute and an intervention by Walt Disney’s wife, he might have been neither mouse nor Mickey.

Happy 90th birthday Mickey! Disney has released a series of original sketches of Mickey Mouse and his cartoon friends to celebrate 90 years of the world’s most popular mouse. This sketch was used for the first ever Mickey story to hit the small screen. Steamboat Willie, broadcast in 1928, showed the cheeky mouse chugging down a river on a boat, whistling while he worked, getting into Tom & Jerry-esque mischief with the bear-like Captain Pete, the ship’s parrot, and a passing cow. It was an immediate hit and the film catapulted Mickey into the limelight, with similar releases quick to follow 

Mickey at 90: This sketch, originally entitled Mickey’s Amateur Concert, was drawn in colour by Walt Disney in the 1930s to depict his mouse character hosting an amateur talent show. The writing at the top of the sketch reads: ‘Okay, okay the next amateur is… quack quack’ 

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Disney’s first standalone character was Oswald The Lucky Rabbit in the 1920s. But in 1928 the rights to the character were taken by Universal Studios, who claimed him for their own.

It was only in response to the row that Mickey came into being. A few tweaks to the Oswald model – an elongated nose, shorter, rounder ears – and Mortimer Mouse was born. But after a frank conversation with his wife Lillian, Disney renamed his creation Mickey. 

When he started out each cartoon required 15,000 drawings on some 30 different backgrounds, and took Disney’s team of animators anywhere from six months to two years to create. Until 1946, Disney provided Mickey’s squeaky, helium-like voice himself, something in which he took great pride.

Their first recorded cartoon was Plane Crazy – an aerial caper featuring loop-the-loops and bloomers used as parachutes – but the first to screen was 1928’s Steamboat Willie. It was an immediate hit and the film catapulted Mickey into the limelight, with more releases quickly following.

Right from his opening scenes, Mickey was a mouse with a spouse. Mickey’s 90th birthday also marks his and Minnie Mouse’s 90th anniversary, and though their marital status has been the source of some speculation, Disney stated that they were wed ‘in secret’.  

Walt Disney is pictured surrounded by his cartoon creations from Mickey Mouse to Bambi 

Within a few years of his debut, Mickey-awareness rivalled that of Charlie Chaplin and he was brought to life in colour for the first time in The Band Concert in 1935 using a new, technicolour film process. 

But fame can change mice just as much as people, and Mickey’s success was so massive that his eccentricities became liabilities.

In order to maintain his appeal, Mickey’s negative qualities were stripped away, leaving a mouse so straight-laced and saintly that some argued he had become bland.  

In 1949, Disney himself admitted the problem: ‘Mickey grew into such a legend that we couldn’t gag around with him’.

1934 brought the debut of Mickey’s anything-but-bland frenemy Donald Duck, whose hare-brained schemes and boisterous temper tantrums picked up where Mickey left off. Between 1941 and 1965, Donald starred in 109 Disney shorts; Mickey in just 14.

Mickey’s filmography dropped off a cliff (1983’s A Mickey Christmas Carol would be his first film in 30 years), but he still had an entertainment empire to run. 

A sketch shows an original work used to make one of the first Oswald The Lucky Rabbit films for Disney. Oswald The Lucky Rabbit was the Disney studio’s character to have his own show, but the rights were taken from Disney in 1928 when Charles Mintz claimed them for Universal Studios. It was then that Mickey Mouse was created by Disney to compete with Universal

He was there to meet and greet visitors at Disneyland’s grand opening in 1955, won the hearts of a new generation with his on-and-off children’s TV show the Mickey Mouse Club, and built up a 40 per cent share in Disney consumer product sales.

Unsure what to do with him on the silver screen, Disney made Mickey master of ceremonies, family patriarch, and mainstay of merchandising.

By the mid-nineties, Mickey had become a bit of a problem. He was still Disney’s prize asset – far too big to be discarded – but it would be a brave executive who tried to modernise or tinker with him.

When Andy Mooney arrived as Disney’s head of consumer products in 2003, he couldn’t believe how little the company was using the face of their franchise. ‘Mickey is our swoosh’, he remarked, referring to the omnipresent tick that Nike use. 

With the aim of making Mickey cool again, he appeared in 3D in the video game series Kingdom Hearts.

Who’s there! Mickey is pictured holding a torch in a sketch for the 1930 Disney animated film The Gorilla Mystery, where an ape escapes from a zoo and captures Mickey’s girlfriend Minnie Mouse. After a long chase, Mickey finally captures the ape 

A giant graffiti mural of the mouse also appeared on the corner of Sunset boulevard and the drive for merchandise was vamped up.  

T-shirts made up the thrust of the campaign, and Mickey appeared splashed across the chests of Jennifer Aniston, Avril Lavigne, Lenny Kravitz, and Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex And The City.

The result was a Mickey for a new age. Though still the smiling face that meets visitors at the gates of Disneyland, the release of video game Epic Mickey in 2009 brought a darker, moodier Mickey, who could be cantankerous and calculating. The game initially received average reviews, but has since gained a sequel and a cult following.

Mickey may have begun life just as a mouse, but for some, he symbolised the American dream. 

He rose from the ashes of the Great Depression and Walt Disney had endured years of rejections and bankruptcy before striking mouse-shaped gold.

‘If you can dream it, you can do it’ he said famously, and Mickey was the embodiment of this optimism. 

This black and white sketch shows a new look Mickey starring in the Nifty Nineties (1941). He was given a new look by Fred Moore. The short film, which was eventually produced in colour, tells the love story between Mickey and girlfriend Minnie 

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