Mickey Mouse turns 80 - symbol of optimism, fun, sheer zest for life, a little fellow trying to do the best he can
You may have missed it, but one of the great inspirational figures of the last century celebrated his 80th birthday a few days ago. Born in Los Angeles in 1928, he has surely brought more pleasure to more people than anyone of his generation. His features are recognizable in almost every city on earth, and he has probably raised a smile from almost everyone whose life he has touched.
And while his name has become a metaphor for anything gimcrack, cheap or childish, he remains the supreme symbol of American optimism, fun and sheer zest for life. He is, of course, Mickey Mouse.
Oddly, the Disney corporation is not making a big deal of Mickey's birthday, perhaps because it is worried that mentioning his great age will damage his reputation among his youngest fans. So it is up to the rest of us to celebrate for him - and celebrate we should. For while Mickey's first 80 years coincided with some of the darkest moments in history, and while Disney has become a byword for commercialism, the great Mouse reminds us of the best in humanity. Sure, he may not have the muscles of Michelangelo's David, but he has a much better sense of humor.
Like all great creations, Mickey was the result of serendipity. Had Walt Disney not fallen out with his paymasters at Universal Studios, we might now be marking the birthday of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit - who is still going himself, although he is unlikely to be sending Mickey a present. Instead, Disney started a new studio.
At first, his chief animator Ub Iwerks came up with a cow and a horse, but then Disney remembered a pet mouse he had kept on his parents' farm. He wanted to call him Mortimer, but his wife, Lillian, persuaded him that Mickey sounded livelier and more youthful. For Mickey's personality, Disney drew inspiration from the most popular movie star of the day. "We wanted something appealing," he said later, "and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin - a little fellow trying to do the best he could."
That is the secret to Mickey Mouse's lasting attraction. While real mice are annoying, there is something cute about a mouse in the abstract. No cow or horse, and certainly no Lucky Rabbit, could have the same appeal. Mickey speaks to the mouse inside us all, the plucky little chap with the big heart, always getting knocked down, always getting back up again - a Chaplin without the hat and moustache, a Chaplin who never dates.
And given Mickey's wide-eyed artlessness, his childlike love of life, it is a tragedy that his name has become synonymous with anything cheap or counterfeit. When we call foreign currency (or our own, these days) "Mickey Mouse money", we do a great disservice to a rodent who deserves better.
Margaret Thatcher even called the European Parliament a "Mickey Mouse parliament". How cruel! A Mickey Mouse parliament would be a fine institution, a source of widespread joy and laughter. The European Parliament may be a Goofy parliament, but it is not a Mickey Mouse parliament.
For while Mickey is often used as a symbol of brash materialism, he actually stands for everything most admirable in American culture: its optimism, its innocence, its sense of possibility.
It might be a stretch to attribute him with Barack Obama's "audacity of hope", but Mickey is a "Yes, we can" sort of mouse, whether conducting the Fantasia orchestra or piloting the Steamboat Willie.
Eight decades on, he is as infectious, inspirational and indomitable as ever. Happy birthday, Mickey - and here's to another 80 years.
Photos courtesy of Disney
Original Source: Telegraph
Image Gallery: Pictures: happy 80th birthday, Mickey
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