Thursday, January 20, 2011

Iconography: Floppy Slippers, Red Robe and a Blue Cone Hat

The Walt Disney Company has long and without shame exploited what they identify as Mickey Mouse's greatest role, in ways as widely varied as company logos, merchandise, studio architecture and theme park attractions.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the nine-minute sequence that is The Sorcerer's Apprentice has eclipsed the animated feature that it is a part of.  Fantasia is masterpiece of filmmaking; however, the image of Mickey, in floppy slippers, red robe and iconic moon and star emblazoned blue cone hat, has evolved into a phenomenon of popular culture.

Walt Disney had already purchased the rights to The Sorcerer's Apprentice, composer Paul Dukas's interpretation of Goethe's poem Der Zauberlehrling, prior to a chance meeting in a restaurant with Leopold Stokowski during the fall of 1937.  The two agreed on a collaboration of what was initially conceived as an enhanced and expanded Silly Symphony.  Though at one point Stokowski suggested they create for the title role, "a new personality which represents every one of us," Walt had always envisioned Mickey for the part, and remained firm that he should be the star and centerpiece of the production.

The decision to expand the scope of the project into a full-length feature was more the result of economics than any further creative inspirations.  When Stokowski recorded the score for The Sorcerer's Apprentice in January of 1938, expenditures on the project were already escalating and it was realized that as a two-reel short it would not be able to earn back its production costs, let alone generate a profit.  By rolling the short into a larger feature film, the initial financial investments in The Sorcerer's Apprentice were better protected.  By September of that year, an overall musical program was determined and production of the Concert Feature, or Fantasia, began in earnest.

Recognizing the importance and stature of the picture, animator Fred Moore was assigned the task of visually "upgrading" Mickey Mouse.  Considered the studio's "mouse" expert, he made one very important revision: eliminating Mickey's trademark "pie-eyes" and replacing them with more expressive pupils.  Although they were all seemingly minor changes on the surface, Moore's modifications in fact quantified a dramatic visual benchmark in the evolution of the character.

Author and Disney historian John Culhane made a symbolic but telling observation in his own chronicling of the making of Fantasia:
"Disney had the strongest possible reason for wanting Mickey to be the hero.  He may have dressed him like Dopey, in a long robe and soft slippers, but the Mickey in The Sorcerer's Apprentice is Walt Disney at the time of Fantasia, having risen in just a few years from conducting a few associates in The Band Concert to becoming the dreamer on the mountaintop, conducting the stars."
The image of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice has evolved into probably the most prominent and prolific of all Disney icons.  To the point where even the costume's various components, most especially Yensid's hat, can stand apart from Mickey, yet remain identifiable and memorable in almost every context in which they are used.


Anonymous said...

A funny detail with Sorcerer Mickey is the magic wand. It's not there in Fantasia, but somehow the wand has crept into many modern depictions.