At a low point in his career, with his business in jeopardy and half his staff gone, Walt Disney came up with Mickey Mouse. His studio produced two silent shorts with Mickey, Plane Crazy (spoofing Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic) and The Gallopin’ Gaucho (a takeoff on the swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks), but they failed to generate the enthusiasm and new contract the company needed if it was going to survive. That’s when they got the idea of adding sound. Walt and his brother Roy gambled everything and the resulting cartoon, Steamboat Willie, debuted on November 18, 1928. It was a huge success. Steamboat Willie not only saved the studio, but went on to be considered a cinematic milestone.
The early Mickey was a mischief maker; puckish, impudent and a bit of an anarchist. Within a few years, however, he had evolved into something very different; cute, boyish and inoffensive. Walt Disney wasn’t about to risk the popularity of his most important product. As Mickey lost his edge, the studio realized it needed a new star – “a character” as Neal Gabler writes in biography of Disney, “who would be immune to the expectations of civility that burdened Mickey.”
Donald Duck was introduced in a 1934 cartoon, The Wise Little Hen. He didn’t have his blue sailor suit yet (what do ducks and sailors have in common?), but the other qualities that would come to define Donald were recognizably present: testy, grumpy, selfish and allergic to work. In the next cartoon, Orphan’s Benefit, Mickey and the anti-Mickey were paired for the first time, and from that point forward Donald Duck took off. By the following year, the Duck was overtaking the Mouse in popularity. Gabler explains his success:
In some respects Donald Duck seemed to offer audiences both a vicarious liberation from the conventional behavior and morality to which they had to subscribe in their own live and which the Duck clearly transgressed and, since his usually got his comeuppance, a vicarious revenge against the pretentious, unattractive, and ornery at a time when the entire world seemed to be roiling in anger and violence [1935 was the height of the Depression, and the year Hitler announced he was going to rearm Germany, and introduced race laws making Jews second-class citizens]. Whereas Mickey had turned into a smiling cipher, the lumpy Duck was hot-tempered, vain, pompous, boastful, rude, suspicious, self-satisfied, and self-indulgent – a taxonomy of misconduct and offensiveness.
Donald Duck was intentionally created to serve as a foil to Mickey. In that sense, you could say he was a part of Mickey – an extension of what Mickey could no longer be. Are those two parts present in us, as well; the conventional and the rebellious? In his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle talks about not understanding his own actions -- doing the very thing he doesn't want to do. But I'm not sure that's the same thing that we are seeing in Mickey and Donald. The need to please is as much a reflection of our brokenness as the need to rebel. But what if we phrased it as faithfulness and freedom?
If Mickey and Donald represent two parts of ourselves, then it would seem the way to spiritual and emotional well-being would lie in bringing those two parts together into an integrated whole. And that, I believe, is exactly the whole that we see in Jesus: truly faithful and utterly free. That's the life that Jesus offers to each of us.
In Jesus we find the freedom to be faithful to God’s intent, not out of a felt need to be socially acceptable (Mickey), but because we know that in God’s intent we begin to experience life at its richest and at its best. We choose obedience, in other words, not because we have to (what the Duck was rebelling against), but because our hearts long for the kind of life that obedience brings.
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart…” (Psalm 119:1-2).