“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.” That quote from Walt Disney appears several times in the 16,000-foot downtown Manhattan space currently housing an immersive exhibition wallpapered in all things Mickey.
Mickey: The True Original Exhibition is timed to coincide with Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday. With displays of vintage Disney artifacts as well as original contemporary interpretations of the cartoon’s indelible silhouette, it pays homage to everything that the mouse started nearly a century ago (having been created in 1928 by Walt Disney and 'Ub Iwerks'): a film empire, a multi-billion-dollar industry, a corporate brand, and an iconic character generations have cherished like a best friend.
The made-to-Instagram experience’s opening this week is cannily timed, premiering just days after the Andy Warhol retrospective was unveiled a few blocks away at the Whitney, in honor of that artist’s 90th birthday.
Much in the same way as Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again, Mickey: The True Original Exhibition elucidates Mickey Mouse’s status as one of, if not the biggest pop-art icons of all time, explaining how such remarkable longevity was achieved, how a character so associated with a business was also embraced by the art community, and how that marriage changed our culture.
All, of course, in the characteristically Disney way.
Off the bat, that means in admission price. Tickets are $38, a sum loftier than any New York City museum, but which is being gleefully shelled out—many dates are already sold out for the exhibition. There are “cast members” at every turn, smiles plastered as they explain the exhibits, make sure you’re having a good time, and, most importantly, ensuring you’re dutifully flowing through the space.
Halfway through, you enter a recreation of the ‘90s Mickey Mouse Club set, with Annette Funicello’s costumes displayed in glass and videos of a young Britney Spears dancing playing on the TV. Oh, and there’s ice cream from Ample Hills. You can pre-order online.
The journey through the exhibit is a journey through Mickey’s evolution over time, from his debut in the 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie, to this first color short, The Band Concert, to his first appearance in a full-length feature, Fantasia, and through to modern representations in fashion and on merchandise.
“I wanted to put together a well-thought-out exhibition and balance that out with Disney’s archives, with Mickey being the muse the whole way through,” says the project’s curator, Darren Romanelli, who as a designer goes by DRx. “So there’s a healthy balance between a curated assortment from the archives and then a curated assortment from contemporary artists.”
The spirit of the exhibition is elucidated right off the bat, with the debut of Steamboat Willie Redux, a remake of the classic 1928 short in which dozens of artists created frame-by-frame replicas of the original interpreted in their own personal style. While Redux was originally completed by Disney Consumer Products in 2013, this is the first time it will screen publicly outside of the the company’s D23 Expo.
Like any of us, Romanelli’s love for Mickey stretches back to childhood. Disneyland was his happy place. He spent birthdays there. When he got into design, he was struck by the number of fashion pieces inspired by Mickey he’d see during trips to secondhand stores in Japan.
As we speak, he’s actually sporting a patchwork lab coat he made himself from some of the 500 Mickey shirts he procured from vendors and from thrifting. For the exhibit, he constructed a massive bear wrapped in 200 recycled Mickey and Minnie shirts.
“I look at the mouse as easily one of the most recognizable icons right of all time,” he says. “Any place you go in the world you always see a Mickey Mouse shirt or poster or a hat or a watch or a lunch box. It’s in a way that it exudes happiness, that someone's stoked to have it. Because it exudes positivity and adventure. For me, it is a timeless icon that's stands for positivity.”
To even the most obsessive Disney fan, the exhibit manages a deft hand at being educational without obscuring from the signature spectacle at hand.
A narrow hallway pays tribute to the “ink and paint girls,” the group of all women who would color in the animation cells in the early days of the company.
Longtime Disney sketch artist Jeff Shelley, whose drawings appear in neon to greet visitors in the exhibit’s first room, explained that Mickey’s ears are meant to rotate around his head as he turns, so anytime you look at him you know instantly that it’s Mickey Mouse.
“You don’t notice it moving because you’re looking at the eyes, nose, and mouth,” he said. “Your subconscious is seeing the ears move.”
Many of the works play with the indelibility of Mickey’s shape and silhouette, a sort-of artistic I Spy showing off how just a glimpse of the ears, or the hands, or the shorts, or any part of that silhouette signals Mickey—that’s how recognizable he is.
As such, Mickey, along with friends Minnie, Pluto, and Goofy, is still the company’s top-selling consumer products franchise, with annual retail sales of $3.2 billion, according to trade publication The Licensing Letter—even with Disney princesses and characters from popular animated films to compete with. In ways both purposeful and perhaps unintentionally intrinsic, the exhibition is an ode to that commodity.
There’s the original work from Amanda Ross-Ho, who contributed an oversized version of the classic Mickey ringer t-shirt that is roughly twice the size of a normal adult. Kenny Scharf debuts an entire neon acid trip room, the Cosmic Cavern, inspired by, of all things, the classic Mickey wrist watch.
Oliver Payne’s piece commissioned for the exhibit features large wall prints of vintage Disneyland Resort photographs with Mickey Mouse sticker overlays. And one entire room near the end of experience, one of the last before heading into the fully-stocked gift shop, features works fashioned almost exclusively out of Mickey Mouse memorabilia, tchotchkes, and branded clothes.
But Mickey would never have been so commercially successful and as iconically branded if that image wasn’t attached to a feeling. As actress Kristen Bell, who voices Anna in the movie Frozen, says while introducing Sunday night’s Mickey’s 90th Spectacular special on ABC, says, Mickey, all these years, has brought “a much-needed warmth and reliability in a world where consistency is something hard to come by.”
It’s an impressive branding transformation—separating Disney from the idea of branding would be like drawing Mickey with only one year—considering that 1928 debut.
He’s a troublemaker in Steamboat Willie, a bit of brat, picking fights before slinking off protected by his shield of precociousness. To impress Minnie, he makes music by strangling the neck of a goose, pulling the tail of a cat, and turning a cow’s teeth into a xylophone, creating a symphony out of their violently procured animal noises.
Early Mickey was cheeky and resourceful, with an impish mischievous streak. As the drawing of the character became rounder over the years, so too did the personality soften.
Trumpeted with his high-octave mouse squeak of a voice, he became unflappably optimistic and the epitome of cheer. He represented of a utopian ideology that the rest of Disney’s characters could orbit more complexly around, but with the mouse always at the center of gravity and of the company’s manufactured message: Happiness.
It’s no mere coincidence that the character was born out of and saw its popularity surge during the Great Depression, or that, 90 years later and during another turbulent time in American history, affection for him is so great still that the milestone is being celebrated globally.
One of the things Mickey: The True Original Exhibition does so well, though, is explore the ways in which an image evolved to trigger a Pavlovian response of cheer can be appropriated in deeper, more mature ways.
That’s certainly evident in Daniel Arsham’s unsettling sculpture, in which he uses his signature style of stretching a figure along a surface to make it look like a towering 8-foot-tall Mickey is being sucked a wall. (Or depending on your interpretation, birthing out of it). There’s Javier Medina’s work, which projects a menacing shadow from a sculpture of Mickey’s famous gloves.
Then there’s the “Fantasia” room, with its blacklight aesthetic, mirror wall of the anthropomorphic brooms, and original remix of the film’s score. It delves into another key transformation of the character, one more fully dimensional and, in a major move, more adult.
“Fantasia is one of those pieces you get into when you’re older,” says artist Oliver Clegg. “It’s not like entry-level Mickey Mouse, because it’s like, and I think this is the most interesting thing about it, is that it presents Mickey in perhaps a more mature light. There’s a quality that perhaps is a little bit melancholic.”
He’s speaking in front of his original piece, an oil painting on recycled wood that, evoking a bit of sadness and loss, shows Mickey’s famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice robe, conical hat, gloves, and shoves laying on the ground as if the mouse had disappeared.
“There’s a sense of melancholy and nostalgia that buffets throughout Fantasia,” he said.
Clegg points out how embedded in our psyche Mickey has become. His four-year-old daughter, for example, has talked to him about Mickey Mouse, but she’s never seen him in any TV program or movie. Somehow, she’s just become aware of him.
“For me, Mickey Mouse at this point is part of the global history,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be about an image. It can be about a sentiment.”
He’s the rare figure allowed two roles: a personality we consider with emotional vibrancy, and a corporate mascot, with all the dark cynicism that entails. (This is a Disney-sanctioned exhibit. Suffice it to say, on that latter point, that you won’t see any Bansky there.) In the year 2018, it’s rather fitting to celebrate that. And, of course, celebrate Mickey.