Jeff Malmberg on Finding Plenty Between the Ears in “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse”

"Mickey: The Story of a Mouse"
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It wouldn’t appear at first that there’s any subtlety about “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse,” an exuberant history of Walt Disney’s most famous character, which comes as a surprise when its director Jeff Malmberg usually lets a story come to him after sitting with his subject for some time in productions such as “Marwencol” and “Spettacolo,” sumptuous portraits of people and places rich in granular detail that gradually take hold. However, with an instantly recognizable global icon, what sneaks up on you is why exactly Malmberg was interested in digging into a subject that’s already so well-known.

“I will just chalk that up to my wide-ranging taste in documentary,” says Malmberg, who in addition to his own directorial efforts has become a trusted collaborator of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” director Morgan Neville at Tremolo Productions. “This is definitely on the dessert cart of the documentary buffet, but within that, it needs to be a really good dessert, and it needs to have some salt in it.”

In fact, Malmberg delivers something really delicious with “Mickey” that happens to be completely in line with his previous films where a survivor of trauma could reimagine himself as a hero in the World War II town of miniatures he builds at home and an Italian village has made an annual tradition of staging a production that recounts their own history, having the locals reenacting their daily lives. By taking on Mickey Mouse, the filmmaker is able to continue telling the story of how people create their own mythology that becomes self-perpetuating in pulling the curtain back on Walt Disney, for whom Mickey was both a signature character and a manifestation of his id. Joyful and impulsive, the mouse that would resonate with the public burnished its creator’s image as a kindly patriarch, who in turn could build an entire family friendly brand on its back encompassing movies and theme parks, but in becoming a symbol for the company, the character stopped having adventures on screen, appearing everywhere in the world but the place where he became a star after “Fantasia.”

“Mickey: The Story of a Mouse” sits in on the development of “Mickey in a Minute,” a short spearheaded by legendary animator Eric Goldberg that marks an all-too rare new cartoon featuring Mickey, but draws an equally compelling picture in charting how Walt captured the public’s imagination, adopting a narrative that plays out like the American dream when he grew up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri with dreams of becoming an animator and eventually set up shop in Los Feliz, California where he was joined by his brother Roy to start a studio. After being disappointed from selling their initial creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who would show early signs of the rambunctious personality that made Mickey a beloved figure, to Universal, everything including the advent of sound would sync up just right for Mickey’s introduction in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928, a seismic moment in pop culture that has rarely if ever been equalled.

Fittingly, “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse” comes across as an explosion, conscious of Mickey’s popularity across the all possible strata and the spryness central to his enduring appeal as admirers young and old enthusiastically express what the character has meant to them and even archivists show childlike glee in recounting his history, though the film doesn’t shy away from the darker corners of those mouse ears, whether it’s been Mickey’s use in military propaganda or Disney’s severe enforcement of copyright, thought to stem from Walt losing the rights to Oswald all those years before. However, if it’s a lack of guile that’s made Mickey so well liked, Malmberg honors the character’s legacy with how pure of heart this crowdpleaser is, amiable and inventive just as its star is known for. After a premiere earlier this year at SXSW, the film is set to start streaming this week on Disney+ and Malmberg spoke about what he found so intriguing about Mickey, partnering with Disney to tell a story with ups and downs for the company and how he could make the film his own.

How did this come about?

I’d been approached a few times on celebrity or very pop [culture] things, and they’ve never really vibed with me, but I just always had questions about Mickey. I like Mickey, I think Mickey’s wonderful and I also [think], “There’s all this stuff inside this simple little drawing,” so it was one of those things where they first talked to Morgan Neville, and he [said to] me, “I think you would want to do this.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I would want to do it.” It was one of those instant gut things of, “Hey, as long as we can talk about all the things that haven’t been talked about, I would love to explore and celebrate Mickey Mouse.”

I can see it because all of your films, as different as they are, are thematically about this idea of creating mythology and how it perpetuates itself. Was that something you actually saw in it from the start or after the fact?

I’d like to be smart enough to be like, “And for my next three-year adventure, I will [track this], and they will all tie [together] in this way,” but that’s the stuff that I can’t help but do — [look at] art and what it does to you and for you and with you. Mickey is as close as you’re ever going to get to the sun. He’s just pop culture incarnate, and that’s not usually what I like. I usually like this other end of the spectrum, but I just had too many questions, and I thought it would be really interesting to try and take something for Disney, with Disney and honor it and also just be honest about some of the things that they don’t talk about.

I personally find things like the “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam” short that Milton Glaser does to be so beautiful and you see a little bit of it in the film, but it’s like, why does that not have as much value [as something that was directly produced by Disney]? I I think it does, and hopefully, the movie has pointed out that when Mickey is taken by the counterculture because he’s just too strong of a character with too much meaning, how can you not use him? A lot of what comes out of that is just silly, but some of it is really wonderful, so [this film] was trying to argue for both sides of that Mickey equation — the Warhol Mickey and the Fantasia Mickey. That was definitely a lot of what the film was working towards, and I grew up in the ’80s, so Mickey to me was not a character, he was a symbol. He was a product. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, he’s great at all those things, but the character had been lost, and I felt like the counterculture, and other people outside of Disney were carrying Mickey along while he was on ice, so I thought that was interesting too.

I’ve always actually always been pretty impressed with the Disney Doc division and how they chronicle their own history, but was there a church and state divide on this when dealing with some of the more critical elements? I noticed ABC News Studios in the credits as well.

To Disney’s credit, they brought in a ABC as an arbiter, but it wasn’t really necessary at the end of the day. We had a very firm line on what was interesting about this character, and like, okay, there are things apparently that aren’t discussed about this character. Clips can be put onto YouTube and they’re wiped away or when you go read an article, then that link is dead. But why is this stuff not talked about? Because it exists. So it was very much an exercise [in curiosity], and if you’re going to do a Disney+ documentary, you need to be very straightforward with them about what you want to cover. I can’t speak to how comfortable that made them, but I do give them credit for the fact that we were able to talk about Mickey’s melodrama or copyright.

You see the way [Disney employees in the film] talk about copyright, it’s not exactly a mea culpa, but to me, that incident in that daycare center was always so bizarre. It was just the opposite of creativity. It was like, “Here’s this thing trying to bring joy and you’re suing people,” so obviously, we were serving at the pleasure of Mickey Mouse, but within that, you’ve got to really make sure you know what you want to talk about and continue to constantly check yourself to make sure you’re not being spun. The phrase I went for all the time was joyful but honest because I am somebody who believes that at the end of the day, Mickey makes the world a little bit more joyful. If you were wearing a Mickey shirt, I would smile and I think that makes the world just a hair bit better, and I will take that for sure.

On one hand, this has to require a different approach when you’re not embedding somewhere for years on end, but at the same time I don’t think too many other filmmakers would’ve looked at locations like Marceline, Walt’s childhood hometown in Missouri, or Kingswell, where he first set up in Los Feliz and now has become a tattoo parlor and skate shop, and think of it as anything more than B-roll. Did you find that questions still could emerge from the places you visited?

That’s intentional because if it’s “Marwencol” or “Spettacolo,” most people don’t know that story, so it’s all new to them. With Mickey, boy, do we know that story — or we think we do. We’ve had our vision of that for a long time, so how do we see that slightly tipped and [have] a little bit of fresh air so that you can see it new or think about it new? When I realized that Kingswell was now a skateboard shop that did tattoos on the side, and often people would come in to get their off-brand Mickey tattoos at the skate shop, how do you not do that? Or like I’d seen a bunch of Mickey collectors, and I felt like I’d always seen the same ones, but when you bump into the person that we film who has a very specific Mickey collection and a very specific idea about the geometry of Mickey, I really wanted to do it because it was a curve ball, but because I felt like you needed a few curve balls in this to really help you see it fresh and to limber you up to think about stuff.

In terms of curve balls, does anything send you in a different direction during filming?

The real happy accident of it was Eric Goldberg and his team and the hand-drawn short [“Mickey in a Minute”] that we ended up filming, that was not part of the plan. And I thought documentary had a strange way of doing things. “Oh, we shoot for 400 hours and we do all this [editing] and we come out with this film.” Documentary has nothing on hand-drawn animation for amazing process and this wild combination of drawing with your pencils and mathematics, I could have sat there all day and watched them. They call it flipping. Some people can flip [cel drawings] at speed so they can flip at 24 frames a second. So getting to learn hand-drawn animation history and see that short develop over the course of the film was one of the things that I really won’t forget because it really was a chance to see somebody struggle to try and honor this character, and the fact that they were still doing it the same way they’d done a hundred years ago, it’s just so vibrant. I love CG animation. My daughter and I watch it all the time together, but there’s something about hand-drawn that is just remarkable.

And they’re not just artists, but they seem to be the keepers of this history as much as anybody. Were you were expecting that from those interviews?

Not at all. And I mean, could there be more of an exuberant Mickey Mouse-like figure than Eric Goldberg? Every day, I got to spend with that guy was just pure joy. I would probably just sit there way longer than he wanted me to just because I just couldn’t wait to ask him more questions. But the history was wonderful, and it was fun to try and figure all that out, but unless you have a present-day aspect, it can get a little dull, so it was a real blessing to have that present day [making of “Mickey in a Minute”] to keep moving back and forth to in the theater of the mind and think about what it must have been like on those early shorts by seeing these new ones.

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