In the beginning, Mickey was one mean mouse, summoned from the soul of his creator, Walt Disney, an animation pioneer described by his first biographer as "a man under the lash of private demons". Around the pair hung a Depression-era sense of angst: the first Mickey Mouse film, Steamboat Willie (1928), was subjected to cuts after audiences complained about the star using a litter of piglets as an accordion, swinging a cat by its tail, and playing a goose like a set of bagpipes.
So the Disney Corporation's unveiling last week of a new, "edgier" Mickey, prowling a post-apocalyptic video game landscape, littered with ghostly cartoon faces, could be seen as a bold experiment in nudging the character back towards his roots. There's more to it than that, though. Mickey hails from the last golden age of animated moviemaking. Today's audiences are living, wide-eyed with wonder, through a new one – and for the first time in his long career, the Mouse is playing second fiddle.
Until recently, it had been widely held in Hollywood, and much of the world beyond, that the great Disney animated films from the period between Snow White (1937) and 101 Dalmatians (1961) would never be bettered. Walt certainly thought so. Hailed by David Low, the British wartime cartoonist, as "the most significant figure in the graphic arts since Leonardo da Vinci", he had seen that a cartoon – until then a short complement to the main attraction – could, with the necessary imagination, talent and technological input, become the main attraction.
He took his material from the fairy tales and folklore of the Old World, garlanded it with the moral certainties of the American heartland, employed the finest artists, writers and composers, and, in the process, established a unique bond of trust with audiences, who came to see the Disney name as a guarantee of high-quality family entertainment. Upon this perception was built a mighty – and mightily lucrative – franchise. A few days after September 11, President Bush, with a rattled nation to reassure, spotted the obvious straw to clutch at. "Get on down to Disneyland with your families," he urged. The park was closed, and there were no flights, anyway, but the thinking was clear enough: Uncle Walt's magic would make everything all right.
By then, the benign climate had seen Mickey turn cute. He smiled more, became cuddlier, and found himself a girlfriend. The incarnation suited him up to a point, and he would still be lording it over the Disney empire now if not for the revolution in animation brought about by computers – and, in particular, by John Lasseter, a one-time Jungle Cruise guide in a Disney theme park, and his Pixar Studios.
In the 14 years since Pixar launched Toy Story – the first feature film composed entirely of computer-generated imagery, or CGI – the upstart American studio has produced a series of family‑friendly blockbusters comparable with the greatest works of Disney's past. Its latest, Up, the story of an elderly ex-balloon salesman realising a lifetime dream of adventure, has received ecstatic reviews and earned almost $500 million worldwide.
Under the guiding hand of Lasseter, Pixar's computers have developed something close to a soul. Ratatouille, the story of a French gastro-rat, is one of the most visually satisfying movies ever made, the detail and texture of a Parisian restaurant kitchen so lovingly evoked you can almost smell the cooking. Wall·E, a largely wordless story of robots on an abandoned Earth, oozes melancholy, poignancy and rebuke.
These are serious films, only nominally for children, that touch on profound themes, address deep emotions, and deploy the wizardry of modern animation not, as so many action movies do, for the sake of maximum wow-factor but to bring out what even the best live acting sometimes cannot. Some have argued that the price has been the death of serious cinema for adults, as Hollywood's finest talent concentrates on animated movies that can be marketed and merchandised to multiple generations – but given the quality of the results, there have been few complaints.
In fact, Pixar's success has been so great that Lasseter, 52, has been handed the keys to the Magic Kingdom: Disney paid $6 billion to buy Pixar (whose films it had distributed) and get Lasseter, hailed as the heir to Walt, to run its own studios, too.
The firm could have had him far cheaper. Obsessed by cartoons from an early age, the Californian actually started out as a Disney animation trainee, but came to the conclusion that the studio, for all its wealth and power, had run out of ideas. In the early Eighties he was shown footage of an experiment with CGI and immediately spotted its potential. Full of enthusiasm, he went back to Disney and urged his bosses to embrace the future. "The future," he was coolly told, "is not computers."
Within a year, he was out of a job. He quickly landed a new one, with the hi-tech film unit owned by Star Wars creator George Lucas; when that was spun off to Apple founder and movie buff Steve Jobs, in 1986, Lasseter was given the job of establishing the team that would become Pixar.
"It's not just about the technology," he says. "You've got to have a solid story, good characters, scenes that look right, all the things that have always made movies work." Nor is it just about Pixar. A rival studio, DreamWorks Animation, has its own string of hits – including the Shrek movies, Shark Tale, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda.
Other filmmakers are heading in directions that seem almost retro‑techno. Wes Anderson, director of the recently released Fantastic Mr Fox, based on the Roald Dahl story, uses stop-motion, along the lines of Wallace and Gromit. Robert Zemeckis, who once gave us Forrest Gump, has turned his attention to motion capture, covering actors such Jim Carrey (for Disney's new version of A Christmas Carol) with ping‑pong balls in order to capture and digitise their motions.
As for Mickey Mouse, whose popularity has shown signs of fading in recent years, Disney says it is "re-imaging" him – initially for a new computer game for teenagers – but that the new look could stick. With or without Mickey, though, there is little doubt that animation has entered a new age of wonder.