At Large  November 3, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

How Mickey Mouse Has Changed Over the Decades

Created: Fri, 11/03/2023 - 10:00
Author: rebecca

Almost one hundred years ago, Walt Disney created his most iconic character, Mickey Mouse. The mouse, whose birthday is celebrated on November 18, can be traced back to a series of short films in the 1920s, with Steamboat Willie (1928) being the most memorable. Steamboat Willie is also notable for being one of the first cartoons ever produced with fully synchronized sound. In the film, a mischievous Mickey plays other animals like instruments and flirtatiously pursues his soon to be partner, Minnie Mouse. At the end of 2024, Steamboat Willie's  Mickey will lose his copyright protection in the US and a few other countries, something that the Walt Disney Company has been planning for.

Over the decades, Disney has consistently updated the look of Mickey Mouse. Consequently, it is only the 1928 version of Mickey that is up for grabs at the end of 2024. In a statement to the New York Times, Disney confirmed that they will continue to protect their rights with the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse, which are still subject to copyright. Ever since Mickey first appeared, he has become synonymous with Disney, and though his original copyright is up soon, Disney doesn’t believe that will change. 

With these Mickey developments in the news, we decided to look at how this cultural icon changed through the years. Like the company he represents, Mickey Mouse has evolved from humble beginnings to a global phenomenon. Learn about how Mickey's has transformed below.

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Mickey's first appearance in Steamboat Willie (1928)
1920's Early Mickey: Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie

Created as a replacement for the character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey Mouse was born in 1928. In the earliest known drawings of Mickey and in his first cartoon Plane Crazy, he has a long, rat-like nose, no shoes or gloves, and his eyes take up half of his face. 

Plane Crazy and another film produced shortly after, The Gallopin' Gaucho were not released for lack of a distributor. His third film, and now considered his debut because it did find a distributor is Steamboat Willie. Released on November 18, 1928, Mickey Mouse appears as a happy-go-lucky mouse on a steamboat. He has big black eyes without pupils (a change from the first iterations), a shorter olive-shaped nose, large white gloves, and matching oversized shoes. This cartoon was sound recorded with a click track, allowing the sounds to match the cartoon character's movements, as they strummed along to the beat. Mickey and his friends on the steamboat do not talk in coherent sentences, but they make various noises and large hand motions, allowing for easy comprehension among audiences of all languages. 

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Parade of the Award Nominees
1930s Mickey in Color: Parade of the Award Nominees

For Mickey's in-color debut, Disney created Parade of the Award Nominees. Produced for the 1932 Academy Awards, Mickey and his friends lead a parade of celebrity nominees for the awards. Mickey is at the head as grand marshal, Minnie Mouse leads the marching band, and Clarabelle Cow rolls out the red carpet for the celebrities, and Pluto brings up the rear of the parade. 

With this first use of color in depicting Mickey Mouse, Disney did not shy away from going all out. Though the background is muted and almost looks like a watercolor painting, Mickey himself is vibrant: he keeps his signature black nose, ears, eyes, and legs, but his face has become a nude shade, almost anthropomorphically human. He wears yellow shoes and gloves with their signature black lines, and his costume is filled with reds, greens, and yellows. 

It was in 1929 that Mickey began an era of what is known now as his "pie-cut eyes." The black circles for uses were mostly used in print cartoons in the 1930s and was not typical for animation. This style goes hand in hand with the "rubber hose" look of their limbs, where Mickey and the rest of the character's limbs are like a floppy hose, and can be stretched like rubber.  This lends to a more slapstick, nonsensical, and fun cartoon.

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Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip still
1940s: Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip

In this installment, Mickey and his pet dog, Pluto go for a train ride. The catch? The train has a no dog policy. At first, Mickey hides Pluto in his suitcase, but eventually the menacing conductor Pete discovers him and chases the pair around the cabin.

In the 1940s, we begin to see some changes arise in Mickey's appearance that give him a more modern look. Mickey now wears a straw hat, his gloves are white, his yellow shoes have changed to brown ones, and his shorts are from now on red with white buttons. All these changes make Mickey appear slimmer, with more perspective given to his ears which are a tad smaller. 

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Pluto's Party 1952
1950's: Pluto's Party

In Pluto's Party, Mickey becomes more stylized. In this short, Mickey throws a birthday party for his dog, Pluto. 

This is one of the last few cartoons in Mickey's original run. He has a more angular stylized facial design, with more shape given to the apples of his cheeks and a pointier chin that emphasize his smile more. He is also shown for the first time with eyebrows, aiding in charting his expressions. 

Before 1953, every Mickey Mouse cartoon was released theatrically, typically appearing in the movie theaters before the feature film. Some theaters began to host the "Mickey Mouse Club," a children's program that would only show Mickey's cartoons. After 1953, Walt Disney focused more on feature films such as Bambi and Sleeping Beatuy, and Mickey faded into the background.

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Promotional poster for Mickey's Christmas Carol, Walt Disney Animation Studios
1980s: Mickey's Back in Mickey's Christmas Carol

Though Mickey was out of work for thirty years between 1954 and 1983, he was still well known and essentially the face of Disney's brand. In 1983, Disney came out with a Christmas special, Mickey's Christmas Carol. 

In his return to theatrical animation, Mickey's eyebrows are removed and he is drawn in a similar style to that of Mickey in the 1940s. 

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Disney Wiki
Runaway Brain poster
1990s: Runaway Brain

In the 1995 film, Runaway Brain, the latest Mickey animation film produced since the Christmas Carol, Mickey attempts to earn money to pay for an anniversary gift for Minnie. In a comedy-horror fashion, Mickey replies to an advertisement to work for a Dr. Frankenollie, but finds that the doctor wants a donor who would switch brains with the monster he has created. 

Here, Mickey returns to his original red shorts and yellow shoes. The buttons on his shorts, though usually white, have turned yellow. He is also shown taller than in previous cartoons.

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Disney Wiki
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse still
2000s: Mickey Mouse Clubhouse

In 2006, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse was introduced as an interactive, computer-animated television show for children. It aired for just about ten years with one hundred and twenty-six episodes produced. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, and Pluto interact with the viewer and help solve problems together. 

In this computer-simulated iteration of the Mouse, Mickey's ears and the buttons on his shorts are perfectly round again. His eyes hark back to the 1940s version of the Mouse, with large oval whites and black pupils.