Tim here. 2013 has proven to be a banner year for Mickey Mouse, the lovable corporate spokesman, marketing juggernaut, and justification for some of the most ruinous developments in copyright law history. I believe he has also, at some point, featured in cartoons.
To celebrate the 85th anniversary of the character, the Walt Disney Company has promoted a new series of made-for-TV shorts bringing his troublemaking side back to the fore after generations of sanding have turned him into a perfectly respectable, deeply bland mascot (I’ll confess to not liking these shorts much at all, but I’m glad they exist). Later this fall, he’ll be starring in a brand-new, old-style cartoon, Get a Horse!, set to play in front of Disney’s winter tentpole Frozen.
With so much Mickey flying around, it was impossible not to pounce at the 75th anniversary this week of one of my very favorite shorts starring the character, Brave Little Tailor.
It’s the last of the great solo Mickey shorts, a self-conscious attempt by producer Walt Disney to give his leading man a chance to shine without interference from Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto (the latter of whom would almost completely take over the nominal “Mickey” series in the ‘40s), restoring to the character his personality and spark. The same motivation was behind “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, which ultimately formed the nucleus of the gorgeous flop Fantasia, and while Brave Little Tailor isn’t at that level of accomplishment (not much is), it arguably serves as an even better platform for Mickey. There’s not so much overt artistry: it’s a goofy slapstick adventure with terrific squash-and-stretch animation underlying the best physical gags in any Technicolor Disney short. A chance for Mickey to go out there and take his final, greatest bow as a ‘30s cartoon character.
The plot is pretty much right there in the title: it’s as simplified version of the classic German folk tale about a tailor who kills seven flies with one blow, and accidentally gets roped into fighting a marauding giant when his braggy enthusiasm at his not very exciting achievement confuses people. It is, if I am not badly mistaken, the first Mickey short that serves as a fairytale adaptation, paving the way for the both “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” segment from Fun and Fancy Free a decade later. In a certain light, though, neither of those much more ambitious stories replicated the success of this little nine-minute bit of fluff. Certainly, the scene where Mickey, telling the king of his epic match with the seven flies, is one of the best moments of his entire career: easily the pinnacle of Walt Disney’s vocal performance of the character, boyishly enthusiastic and breathlessly delivered.
More than that, it’s an impressive achievement of animation, with the animators under director Bill Roberts flexing and spinning the mouse around and giving him more expressions in a shorter span of time than he’d ever go through, and doing it with the more cartoony, primitive design that was just about to be phased out.
It’s the reason people fall in love with this style of animation. The supreme flexibility of the character, and the way that a skilled artist can use his incredibly simple design to evoke all kinds of emotions is, more than anything, why Mickey among all cartoon characters is the most universally-known and loved fictional character in the world (sure, a lot of that has to do with Disney’s iron-fisted control of media, but there’s a good reason that Mickey, and not Donald or Goofy, became Disney’s avatar). Not only does Brave Little Tailor showcase this side of Mickey as well or better than any other cartoon he ever starred in, it’s also one of his funniest vehicles: partially because of the creativity allowed by having a very large character and very small one interacting with each other, though this would be refined in “Mickey and the Beanstalk”.
Mostly, it’s because the late ‘30s were one of the best periods at Disney animation, with the simple formulas of the first half of the decade having given way to increasingly ambitious scenarios with room for more than basic slapstick. Nor can we forget about the legendary run of animated features being made at the same time by the same people: it can’t be an accident that Brave Little Tailor came out so soon after Disney’s more prominent Grimm adaptation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Essentially, there’s just something lovable about watching this character and that scenario interact, brought to life by Disney animation at the height of its powers in some of the most inventive physical gags in the entirety of pre-WWII American animation. It’s all very simple, of course, but colossally appealing too, a playful comic adventure that shows off Mickey at his very best both as a movie star and a work of top-shelf draftsmanship.