A journey into the legend: the iconographic evolution of Mickey Mouse

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2018 will mark the 90th birthday of what is very probably the most beloved cartoon character of adults and children alike: Mickey Mouse.

This is an icon that, over the years, has undergone multiple changes both in terms of graphics as well as in terms of character, sometimes completely revolutionising his image from one era to the next. Because of this, the “talking mouse” is considered an important indicator of the historical changes and developments in terms of humour that he has accompanied. It is no coincidence, for example, that during the post-war period Mickey Mouse became more troubled and meditative – almost as if this was an attempt to respectfully personify the thoughts of those who were still troubled by the burden of the war that had only just finished.

There are also those who believe – and with reason – that the majority of the graphic alterations to Mickey Mouse can be traced back to a careful psychological analysis carried out by the Disney designers, and which had demonstrated a strong correlation between some graphic characteristics and our unconscious.

Let’s take a closer look at the eras that were most decisive for Mickey Mouse’s alterations, and why.

The 1920s: a mischievous Mickey Mouse is born

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The oldest Mickey Mouse animations, produced at the end of the 1920s, depicted a character who was – in many respects – very distant from the conventional image of a gentle, quiet and simply mouse, which had found a place in the collective mind. Although animated cartoons had not at this point reached a very advanced stage of characterisation, and we can’t really talk of the “psychology of the character”, the comic gags that involved Mickey Mouse portrayed him as a somewhat mischievous and opportunistic character, with traits that could even be described as cruel. These are exemplified by situations in which the character makes use of other animals to orchestrate musical jingles with a slightly sadistic undertone; where, for example, Mickey pulls the tail of a cat, wrings the neck of a duck or drums on the teeth of a cow with a stick. It must also be noted, however, that thanks to the role reversal on which the narrative structure of these shorts was based, Mickey Mouse often found himself the defenceless victim of his enemies (like the historic Peg-Leg Pete) – so much so that it provoked the compassion of the viewer.

From a graphic point of view, the large irises with triangular pupil – which today seem slightly disturbing, as they do not communicate much emotion – are exemplary of that period.

The 1940s: Mickey Mouse becomes unambiguously good

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Towards the end of the 1930s, aided also by the great popularity that Mickey Mouse had started to gain all over the country, the animators began to adapt their character to the expectations of the public. Hence his infantile and innocuous side completely took the place of his aggressive side, in a softening process that saw its apex at the end of the 1940s. During the 1940s, the writer-zoologist Stephen Jay Gould made the following comment regarding Mickey Mouse: the character who once had fun making music with the nipples of a pig received a kick up the ass for insubordination (as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia) and when he goes fishing he can’t even subdue an annoying clam”.

Gradually, Mickey Mouse transformed into a good character inhabiting a fantastical world; even his somatic traits altered and underwent a gradual process of “infantilisation”. According to Gould, the Disney designers tacitly modified Mickey Mouse into a “mouse-child”, often using methods that mimicked the changes of nature. Hence, to give him the short and chubby legs of a child, they elongated and enlarged his trousers; they also increased the size of his head, gave his face a more youthful appearance, moved the ears further back and made the forehead protrude more, giving him a youthful look. And the eyes – which are a distinctive trait in the graphic alterations of Mickey Mouse – transformed from triangular irises with an entirely black pupil to real eyes that were bigger and more expressive.

The 1950s: Mickey Mouse becomes “modern”

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With the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s, Mickey Mouse lost his classic red trousers in favour of clothes that were more suited to the various situations in which he found himself (a hunt, a romantic appointment, a working day…). This task of rendering Mickey Mouse more “transformative” was surely also linked to the western historical period: indeed, great prosperity and faith in the economy is also reflected in the need of people to challenge themselves, and in that inner drive towards “being able to become someone” different.

During this period, the shape of Mickey Mouse’s face also underwent a re-design, increasing the size of the eyes and forehead: his infantile characteristics are so strong that Mickey Mouse seems indistinguishable from his grandchildren, except for in height. This new character was retained for a few years, until the definitive end of the series in 1953.


The 1980s/1990s: the 1930s Mickey Mouse returns

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After thirty years of “inactivity”, Mickey Mouse re-appears during the 1980s and 1990s in a series of cartoons (Mickey’s Christmas Carol, The Prince and the Pauper, Runaway Brain) celebrating what was – and will remain – his definitive identity: Mickey Mouse appears in the same form as at the end of the 1930s, with the image that represented the peak of his fame and public affection.

The reasons behind the youthful Mickey Mouse

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In his essay, Gould interprets the morphological transformation of Mickey Mouse towards infantile characteristics, departing from a renowned theory by Konrad Lorenz: according to this scholar, given infantile characteristics (a relatively large head, predominance of the cranial case, large eyes that are situated low down, short and plump extremities, an elastic consistency and clumsy movements) function for humans like “behavioural signals”, intended to trigger affectionate and protective behaviour towards children. In this sense, the infantilisation of Mickey Mouse implies the discovery (whether conscious or unconscious) of this discovery by Disney and its designers, who designed the character of Mickey Mouse according to what would trigger fondness in them and in audiences. It was the way in which this character communicated with their “child-like part” that led them, almost naturally, to represent him in a certain way rather than in a different way. All this is a strong sign of the fact that behind every artistic process there are highly complex implications relating to the deepest and most unconscious moods.

If you love Mickey Mouse and his world, you will love Tribe!

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