Stalwart companions are an asset to any great man, or in this case mouse, and Mickey sure has a great cast of them. Two of his earliest companions, Minnie Mouse and Pluto the Dog, helped the main mouse along his earliest adventures and solidified themselves among the Disney Fab Five we continue to see captivating imaginations around the world.
“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing, that it was all started by a mouse.” – Walt Disney
But not just one! Two. Minnie Mouse has been appearing with Mickey since his first film and was certainly one of his most frequent companions during these early adventures. In fact, prior to the introduction of the third member of the eventual “Fab Five,” Minnie had appeared in 16 of the 20 Mickey Mouse films.
Though she had time to build her character, it didn’t mean that she was given much. Quite often when not playing a damsel in distress, she was simply helping Mickey do what Mickey did best for the better part of his first 4 years in theaters: play music. So. Much. Music.
This week, I jokingly referred to the genre for most of the first 25 Mickey Mouse shorts was called “Hey, There’s A Piano!” Some how, some way, for some reason, animals ended up playing music. Mickey and Minnie were often the instigators of the music as well! For the most part, it seems Minnie’s first theatrical appearance had actually defined her for the first few years of her existence: she would need help and she would play music. Her little jam session of Turkey In The Straw in Steamboat Willie was just her debut performance.
In Comes Minnie
Of course, in hindsight we know why. Synchronized sound in cartoons was brand new and the success of Steamboat Willie proved that audiences enjoyed the silly antics of the two mice that appeared to produce catchy tunes. For this purpose, Minnie was a perfect counterpart. She added a smattering of love interest and damsel in distress to the minuscule plot lines that all tended to revolve around eventually playing music.
While Minnie wasn’t without some agency of her own, often she was headed her own way and crossed paths with Mickey or rebuffing Mickey’s affections, she never really got to set her own character. We can hardly be surprised though, as she had always been closely similar to the main star of the features. While we continue our run through the early years of shorts, we can only hope she grows after the introduction of more characters. In fact, the next one will have quite an impact on the direction of the Mickey Mouse films.
Pluto Fetches Plot
Pluto the Dog is a very unique character in the Mickey cartoons as he is not anthropomorphous at all. Though there is one short that features him with gloves playing a trombone early one, Pluto is essentially just a dog. A simple dog. Yet he brought so much to the table when he debuted in the early 1930s.
Like Minnie, Pluto shares a lot of characteristics with the star mouse. He follows his interests recklessly, he will become aggressive when presented with a threat and will whimper when hurt or scolded. The only real difference between Mickey and Pluto in the early cartoons is that Pluto’s actions and interests coincide completely with the fact that he’s a dog. He’s loving and loyal to his master(generally Mickey, though in his first real short he’s “Rover” and belongs to Minnie), he has never-ending battle with fleas and cats, and he will find stick and scents so intriguing he can’t leave them be. Though so simple of an addition, Pluto would help change the direction of the Mickey Mouse shorts.
While romance did not appear to be a focus that Disney wanted to explore much further in those early years, the antics of a mouse and his loyal dog seem to be a rich field for exploration. Pluto found his way into more and more shorts quickly and the direction began to shift away from animals making music and more into what kind of trouble the mutt and Mickey could get into, often due to Pluto’s sheer exuberance.
Pluto’s headlong rush into danger during hunts or Mickey trying to keep cats at bay from a radio broadcast the dog was listening to or even the terror of kitten orphans brought the films past the stage of music making and started to develop a bit more plot.
Simple plots may be all that could be managed over the course of 6 to 8 minutes in the shorts but they began to be more diverse. Most of it started with Pluto chasing a stick or a cat and finding himself in the middle of more than he could handle, either crashing right into the middle of Mickey’s plans or dragging the mouse into his own sticky situation. However little plot could be fit in the time frame, the Disney studios started to work more as storytellers over the musical gag work that had been a staple of their earlier work.(This was likely assisted by the parallel running Silly Symphonies series they were also working on at the time, but we’ll have to wait until the fifth member of this band to get into that.)
The Music Never Stopped
This is Disney we’re talking about after all. Walt’s connection with music never ended and we will always have musical memories in connection with the Disney name. But with the animators moving on to more story related shorts, the music took on a new role. The on screen action began to find a sync with the music in the background adding a ring to the gags and helping to add a bit of emotional flavor into the scenes. Many shorts contain little to no dialog, so the music tends to inform a lot of the urgency in the shorts and we can see how it helps start to see how Mickey was able to easily transition into that little sorcerer we see in Fantasia nearly a decade later.
Walt Disney once said:
We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
And that seems to be where new characters started leading the studio. We start to see that next little brick in the Disney castle being put in. Little strides are being made on character and storytelling, using music for mood rather than gimmick, and all while continuing to become better animators. Though still a bit crude, we can see the Disney we know. And even in the new, we see parts we feel like we already knew them. Because that’s what Disney magic is. Old and new and fantastic.
What are some of your earliest memories of Minnie and Pluto? How did you first get introduced to the characters? Let me know in the comments and perhaps I’ll share with you my embarrassing Pluto story!