‘Mickey: The Story of a Mouse’ director Jeff Malmberg talks Mickey’s magic, telling story of American icon

Zoe Tzanis, Life & Arts Reporter

After nearly 100 years in the business, Mickey Mouse returns to screens with his age-old charm and an all-new biographical narrative in the Disney+ documentary “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse.” Director Jeff Malmberg, known for his work on 2018 documentary “Won’t You be my Neighbor,” aimed to bring new light to the complicated American icon, taking audiences behind the scenes through Mickey’s extensive on and off screen history.

Before the film premieres at SXSW later this week, The Daily Texan spoke with Malmberg about Mickey’s enduring magic and the challenges of tackling such a symbolic character.

The Daily Texan: Obviously, Mickey is an already existing character. What were the challenges of personifying Mickey in this more transcendent, symbolic way, with a character arc outside of his shorts?

Jeff Malmberg: There seem to be two camps. Half the world thinks (Mickey) is full of meaning. I would describe myself in that camp. Half the world thinks he’s completely meaningless. … As a kid, I couldn’t articulate it like this, but (Mickey) was something we all seem to share. I always found that really interesting.

DT: How do you go about reaching the camp that thinks that Mickey isn’t as meaningful as you think Mickey is? Can you convince them?

JM: (Mikey) is an invitation. You got to get on the train! But my job was not to convert them. My job was just to acknowledge that this character has been with us long enough that there’s two sides to him. It’s about being honest. Obviously, I’m a believer that Mickey makes things a little better, but I want to be honest about what is inside that symbol.

DT: Do you think that after we’ve seen the sausage get made and seen Mickey get animated, it might take away from the magic?

JM: I hope that the next time you see a Mickey short, your breath is taken away double. You realize the amount of work behind it. I hope it only adds to it. I found the whole process of hand drawn animation to be so inspiring, vital and beautiful. I just wanted to share that, like, “Look at what’s involved in making this magical thing.”

DT: When people walk away from this film, will it be with a redefined image of Mickey or a reemphasized version of the Mickey they always knew?

JM: (Mickey) is a reflection of us at this point. And that’s odd, that a drawing of a mouse would be a reflection of us. I realized what an absurd concept that is, and that was part of the fun, too. Isn’t it weird that this is true?

DT: During a time of overlapping crises, what could Mickey mean for the international population?

JM: Mickey is a shorthand for joy, for people smiling at each other. That has value. I don’t want it to reach too far. I would just say that having a symbol that we all share, that means joy, and that (making) us smile is not a bad thing. I will take that in this world. And it might be small, but it’s something.