Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Isn’t Public Domain, Ub Iwerks’ Is

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Ub Iwerks seen with Walt and Mickey

Credit: The Walt Disney Family Museum

“It was all started by a mouse” is a maxim all Disney fans know by heart, and it’s made its way into the consciousness of Disney culture. However, while Walt gets most of the credit, too many people seem to forget that Ub Iwerks created Mickey’s earliest forms.

Ub Iwerks behind a camera
Credit: D23

Mickey has been credited as Walt Disney’s greatest creation for nearly a century. But while Walt was undoubtedly instrumental in his conception, he didn’t work alone.

Related: How “Word of Mouth” Could Save Disney Animation

The character has made dozens of headlines this week as the earliest incarnation of Mickey entered the public domain. As fans fear that horror adaptations and grotesque artwork using this version of Mickey are dragging Walt Disney’s icon through the mud, they’ve forgotten that he was never 100% Walt’s.

Ub Iwerks: The Father of Mickey Mouse

Walt Disney did a lot of things for Mickey Mouse. He conceptualized him, gave him dozens of cinematic roles, gave him a voice, and, as pointed out by American Experience, “Walt gave him a personality.” However, Mickey did not spring from Walt’s pen in a magical moment of inspiration, as some might think.

Related: Immersive Disney Animation is Nightmare Fuel

In Leslie Iwerks’ documentary The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story (1999), Roy E. Disney cosigned on the notion with the following statement.

“Even Walt, I think, started admitting that towards the end without Ub there wouldn’t have been a Mickey.”

Although many artists would later go on to shape the Mickey Mouse we know and love today, such as Fred Moore giving him his iconic sorcerer’s apprentice look in Fantasia (1940), Ub Iwerks was the rock on which the character was built. Along with Walt, Iwerks was the creative force behind the cartoons that recently entered the public domain, like Plane Crazy (1928) and the immortal Steamboat Willie (1929).

Walt Disney with Mickey Mouses
Credit: D23

Walt Disney was the innovator who made the magic happen; that can’t be denied, but there would be no Mickey or possibly even a Walt Disney Company without the artistic contribution of Ub Iwerks. Iwerks singlehandedly animated Plane Crazy, which would serve as the first official appearance of Mickey before Steamboat Willie, making him a driving force that forever changed the realms of animation.

Related: Our Beloved Disney Cartoons Then and Now

Iwerks continued to work with Walt for many years, and his list of credits expanded far beyond Mickey Mouse cartoons. As well as working on other shorts, Iwerks had his hand in creating animation for full-length features like Sleeping Beauty (1959) and special effects for Mary Poppins (1964). The animator even went on to help develop effects for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

Walt Disney will always be a titan of the animation industry, but to say he singlehandedly changed the world would be untrue. Mickey without either of his creators is an incomplete equation, and Disney fans everywhere owe so much to the hand behind the mouse.

Inside the Magic would like to especially thank Ub Iwerks’ granddaughter, Leslie Iwerks,  for her time and assistance in writing this piece.

Do you think Ub Iwerks deserves more credit? Let Inside the Magic know in the comments down below!


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