Mickey Mouse is not an uncommon subject. As Walt Disney’s breakout star and the character who put Disney’s studio on the map, the iconic mouse is a staple of both animation and popular culture. He’s remained an evergreen force across 90 years of history, and isn’t going anywhere. That being said, he’s talked about a lot. He’s written about a lot. He’s featured prominently in animation documentaries a lot. If you’re an animation fan, you probably know a general timeline of Mickey’s story. You may even have a collection of his short films on DVD, or own a book or magazine published through the years chronicling his history. But anything and everything before this very moment is rendered inconsequential in comparison to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse: The Ultimate History, a phenomenal new book from Taschen Publishing.
In the Taschen tradition, this elaborate coffee table book takes the reader through every beat of Mickey’s storied legacy, with nearly no stone unturned. Authors J.B. Kaufman and David Gerstein, no strangers to Disney history, provide an illuminating journey that begins in 1928 with Plane Crazy and continues into today with the shorts produced from Disney Television Animation. Animated filmography, comic book adventures, and (almost) everything in between is all here.
I know what you’re thinking. “I’m a huge Disney fan. I already know everything there is to know about Mickey Mouse.” And there’s where I can assure you you’re wrong. I certainly was. Mickey is my favorite Disney character, and I grew up watching his short films on repeat through the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs. I’ve read books, articles, you name it. I thought Taschen’s book might show me some fascinating artwork, but I didn’t expect it to truly learn much new information. Well, let me assure you, I couldn’t have been further from the truth. In all honesty, my Mickey knowledge prior to reading this book almost feels artificial because I was shocked at how much I was unaware of.
The rundown of Mickey’s short films of the ’30s reads as an unearthed saga of Walt and Roy’s pursuit of a distributor who could share their work with the world and establish Mickey as a permanent star. The thorough coverage of Mickey’s comic book career illuminates an entire different side to his personality that faded away in film but was kept very much alive in print all this time. The reference of Mickey’s short-lived radio stint brings to mind how, if successful, it could have directed a completely different course of history, and prompts an inner monologue in the reader of what drove the projects that were successful. The chapter about abandoned Mickey projects reads as an unending parade of asking myself, “How did I not know all this?” As extensively as Mickey’s history is projected in media, produced by Disney itself or otherwise, I guarantee you that this book will share something new with you — and not just a fact or two, but an entire plethora of knowledge.
Within such illuminating content are fascinating discoveries about how the personalities of Mickey’s pals were explored in external mediums, particularly comics, in ways their film versions simply never reflected. One story had Peg Leg Pete and Clarabelle Cow in love. For years, Goofy and Toby Tortoise (from The Tortoise and the Hare, a 1935 Silly Symphony) appeared as a detective duo solving mysteries in an ongoing British serial. A dog character called Butch was popular enough in the comics that he appeared in costume in a 1931 live Mickey Mouse stage show in Los Angeles, despite the fact that he’s all but obsolete to audiences today, a surprising notion considering even obscurities like Horace Horsecollar still appear live daily in Disney theme parks. Mickey’s comic career contrasts his film tenure in surprising ways, and Kaufman and Gerstein provide extensive examples of this.
What’s more, this book is gorgeous. The 496-page volume is a coffee table book if there ever was one. It’s so big that it comes in a huge case thing with a handle. Weird flex, but ok. It’s easily the most gargantuan book I own, making for cumbersome lap reading but marvelous artwork viewing. Designer Anna-Tina Kessler and editor Daniel Kothenschulte do an excellent job of compiling decades of Mickey illustrations and photographs in what amounts to a definitive visual time capsule. Pencil storyboard sketches are especially a treat to study as enlarged, full-page inclusions. The detail in the animators’ lines, the texture of their pencil markings, and the way Mickey’s movements leap off their drawing pads is nothing short of amazing, especially when considering some of them are nearly a century old. Text aside (which is enjoyable in its own right), one could flip through the pages and not read a single word and still be entertained for hours.
It seems silly to complain about omissions when the book covers its content so thoroughly, but there are a few important Mickey moments that are ignored or downplayed. Mickey’s theme park presence is touched on briefly, but legendary attractions like Mickey Mouse Revue, Fantasmic!, and Mickey’s PhilharMagic (each with a fascinating history of their own that I had been excited to learn more about, and essential to Mickey’s filmography) aren’t even mentioned. Along the same lines, the phenomenon 1950s television series Mickey Mouse Club is only afforded three pages. Its later 1970s and 1990s iterations are omitted completely.
Those are hardly reasons to negate a recommendation here, though. This Taschen release is a must-own for fans of the mouse, and I don’t use that phrase lightly. This is impressive in every way, a sheer delight to read and look at. That being said, it can’t be bought with spare change. Its list price is $200.000, making it a significant purchase. At the time of this writing, it’s currently on sale on Amazon for $121.63 (and a few weeks ago, I bought it there for about $20 cheaper). So $200 may not actually be what you end up paying, but still, that’s no small purchase. I saved up gift cards for a few months to make it happen, but I’ll say I’ve never been more satisfied with an art-focused book. The sheer length helps make the price worth it, as does the hefty amount of text to accompany the expansive collection of artwork.
A book about Mickey Mouse may be the last thing you think you need as a fan of animation or Disney. Mickey Mouse? Been there, done that. I’m thrilled to say those expectations are shattered by Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse: The Ultimate History, a volume so important that Taschen’s namesake, Benedikt Taschen, directed the production himself. You may have heard of or enjoyed last year’s Disneyland volume from Taschen. This is that on steroids. You’ll learn so much about Mickey, and anytime that can be said is a wonderful time indeed.