Upon our visit to Junction Point to learn about Epic Mickey, we had the opportunity to sit down for an extended conversation with Warren Spector. We tapped his expertise on Disney and Mickey Mouse, asked him all about his new game, found out what he thinks it will take to revitalize the character of Mickey Mouse, why he chose the Wii, and even what other Disney dream project he’d like to tackle. If you’ve been following our coverage of the game, you’ll recognize some of his words from other articles. To get the full scoop, read ahead for our complete interview.  

GI: What do you think the significance of the Mickey Mouse character is in relation to film history and animation history?

Warren Spector: Mickey is critical to both animation history and film history. He was absolutely and demonstrably the most recognizable and popular film star in the world for about three or four years in the early ‘30s. He was huge at the box office. It’s not an overstatement to say that he gave hope to an entire generation of people living through the Depression. He was a little ray of sunshine. He seems kind of sweet and innocent, and his films don’t seem as anarchic and crazy and maybe relevant as today’s films do, but at the time it was exactly what the country needed, what the world needed. So he was there to provide it. 

Just in terms of animation, he also represents a push for quality and for characterization and for story over gags – that was entirely new to cartoons. No one had ever really done that before. It’s actually not that completely accurate to say that he was the first sound cartoon character, but he’s the one that got in peoples’ heads first, and that means he’s the most important star of the talking pictures. You can argue that in 1928 when Steamboat Willie came out as the first sound synched cartoon that people were really aware of, Al Jolson was making the Singing Fool, which was a crummy old silent film style – and I mean, I love Al Jolson, and I love that movie, and there are probably five fans out there that are going to be offended now, but – he showed that sound film could be an art form in the same way that silent films were. Huge, hugely important. 

GI: What made those early Disney cartoons stand apart from the crowd? Animation was growing big at that point in general. What made Disney’s stuff work and take on that status that you’re talking about?

WS: The thing that I think set Disney apart more than anything else was his unwavering commitment to quality. He would not cheap out on anything. Animation at that point was this little backwater. No one cared about it. There were Felix the Cat cartoons, and some others. There were some cartoon characters who had some popularity back then, but they were really quickly thrown together, kind of haphazardly, slapdash things that nobody cared about. Disney really paid attention. He focused on quality. 

He lost Oswald because he refused to compromise on budget. That was the fundamental issue. He wanted more money to make better cartoons, and his distributor wouldn’t give it to him. So they fired him, found somebody who would do it cheaper, and guess what? Nobody remembers Oswald after Disney stopped doing him. So unwavering commitment to quality, that’s number one. 

Number two was he moved beyond just gag, gag, gag, which is what the earlier cartoon shorts were. It’s not that Disney skimped on the gags. I mean, he paid his animators by the gag. It’s not like he wasn’t thinking about that stuff, but he really brought a level of character and story to short cartoons that no one had ever seen. 

GI: How do you see the character of Mickey Mouse having changed over the years? Were there particular eras that you identify in the character’s life? 

WS: Yeah, there were definitely distinct periods in Mickey’s life. There’s a wonderful poster of all of the different major eras of Mickey. We’ve got it up on the wall, actually. I don’t know who owns the rights to that. It’s a great poster. 

There’s that early phase where he was a rat. There’s just no two ways about it. He was a guy who smoked and drank and shot guns and skewered people with swords and threw Minnie Mouse out of a plane when she wouldn’t kiss him and abused farm animals. He was a badly behaved little guy. As he became more popular, I think Walt started saying, “Let’s make this guy more realistic. Oh, we don’t want to do things with this guy that the world isn’t going to like,” so they started taming him and taking different parts of his personality. I’m about to get really pretentious – he was like this fully individuated ego. Jung would have loved Mickey Mouse. 

But at some point they fractured his personality. They took his mischievousness and his anger and need for revenge and gave it to Donald. At some point they took his naïve simplicity and gave it to Goofy. They took his loyalty and infinite affection and gave it to Pluto, of all things. They took his character and just shattered it, and all of a sudden he’s kind of a straight man for the gang. So there’s that middle period where they kind of lost some of what made him special. He stopped being Douglas Fairbanks the adventurer or even Charlie Chaplin the humor guy, and they turned him into just the straight guy. 

GI: When was this period? When do you see this change first happening?

WS: I think you start to see it by the early ‘30s. By 1932, that was well under way. He was created in 1928, and he had a three or four year run of being this amazing character that I think even if kids watched that cartoon, if they could stand to watch something in black-and-white, I think they’d really get a kick out of it and be amazed at how badly behaved Mickey was. 

But by the early ‘30s, though he was no less popular – I mean, he was absolutely beloved in ’32, ’33; that was his peak right there – but by that point he had kind of become the straight man. And then toward the end of the ‘30s, it looks to me from the outside that they were trying to bring back some of the adventurous spirit that he had. By the ‘40s, they were doing things like Brave Little Tailor and that kind of stuff. They tried to get it back, but they just couldn’t take any risks with the guy. He was so successful and so popular that taking any risks with him risked the entire future of the company. Who’d be  crazy enough to do that? Wait, other than me. No one’s nutty enough to do that. 

By the ‘40s, he was already kind of on the wane. If you look at it, Donald Duck was way more successful by the ‘40s. There were lots more Donald cartoons. By the ‘40s, Mickey was appearing as a secondary character in Pluto cartoons for the most part. Goofy and Donald were doing their solo thing. I think in 1952 they did “The Simple Life.” That was Mickey’s last cartoon for about 35 years. It was kind of over. He was an icon on a watch, on a t-shirt.

There have been attempts to bring him back. “Run-Away Brain” in 1995 – I loved that cartoon. I don’t understand why people at Disney don’t like it. I think it’s brilliant. It’s a fantastic cartoon. But other than that, there’s “The Three Musketeers.” I dunno. “The Christmas Carol.” Eh. They didn’t know what to do with him anymore. He’s kind of been laying fallow, which is a great opportunity for us.