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How Mickey Mouse almost got to play Christopher Columbus

Jim Hill

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How Mickey Mouse almost got to play Christopher Columbus

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How are you supposed to celebrate Columbus Day anyway?

I mean, I suppose -- if Walt Disney Animation Studios had actually completed that Mickey Mouse featurette back in the early 1990s (You know? That half-hour-long film in which the world's most famous mouse was supposed to have portrayed Christoper Columbus?) -- I guess that we all could have commemorated this three-day-long weekend by slinging that disc into our DVD players.

What's that you say? You never heard that WDAS once had a Mickey-plays-Christopher-Columbus featurette in development? Oh. Well, then just sit right down and you'll hear a tale. A tale of a fateful trip ...

Oops. Sorry about that. I seem to be getting my "Mighty Sailing Men" confused.

Anyway ... Let's start off by by setting the Wayback Machine for the late 1980s. Back when Disney was just getting serious about getting back into the animation business. And Mouse House managers were wondering what they could do to revive Mickey's career.

 Copyright 1988 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Oh, sure. Back then, the Mouse was still huge at the theme parks (In fact, in the Summer of 1988, the Imagineers actually added a whole new "land" to WDW's Magic Kingdom -- Mickey's Birthdayland -- to help celebrate this character's 60th anniversary). But when it came to the silver screen, the Mouse's appearances had become rather sporadic. With his last film being "Mickey's Christmas Carol" (Which was released to theaters in 1983).

The new management team at Disney really wanted to raise Mickey's profile (With the hope that modern audiences would then re-embrace this classic character. Which would make it that much easier for Disney Consumer Products to start moving more merchandise that featured the Mouse's likeness). Which is why it was then decided that WDAS should put a new series of Mickey Mouse featurettes into production.

The original plan was that the studio would release a new half-hour-long animated featurette that starred Mickey every two years. With the first of these films being 1990's "The Prince and the Pauper."

 Copyright 1990 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And given that the second film in this series was due to hit theaters in 1992 (i.e. The 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to the New World) ... Well, to the guys in WDAS's story department, this seemed like a natural hook for the second Mickey Mouse featurette. So -- as animation got underway on "The Prince and the Pauper" -- story work got underway on "Christopher Columbus" as well as a third film in the series, "Mickey's Arabian Adventure."

"So why didn't we ever get the chance to see this second Mickey Mouse featurette? Or 'Mickey's Arabian Adventure' for that matter?," you ask. Well, there were a couple of reasons, actually.

For one, Disney's storymen could never quite find a politically-correct way around the whole indigenous people problem. In that -- once Columbus arrived in the New World -- this animated feaurette was going to have to show some sort of encounter between Capt. Mickey, his crew and the folks who were already living on Hispaniola. And Mouse House managers were concerned that -- if Disney Feature Animation played this scene for laughs -- it could wind up causing a lot of problems for the studio.

Copyright 1989 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Then -- on the heels of "The Little Mermaid" 's surprising success in the Fall of 1989 -- a decision was made to concentrate all of WDAS's efforts on producing new full-length features. Which is why the satellite facility at Disney-MGM Studios theme park (Which had originally been set up just to produce new featurettes & shorts for the company) began working on entire sequences for upcoming films like "Beauty & the Beast" and "The Lion King."

As for "Mickey's Arabian Adventure" ... Once the studio decided to go forward with production of "Aladdin," it just didn't make much sense for the studio to proceed with development of a featurette that would feature many of the same settings & story elements as that Ron Clements & John Musker production. Which is how the third Mickey Mouse featurette wound up getting spiked.

Now where this gets interesting -- in spite of the fact that this Mickey Mouse "Christopher Columbus" featurette never actually went into production -- evidently the development art for this project did make it over to Disney Consumer Products. Which is why -- every so often -- you'll see the company put out merch that does feature Mickey dressed as the famous captain.

 Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, "Christopher Columbus" wasn't the first time that Walt Disney Animation Studios toyed with the idea of producing a Mickey Mouse featurette that would have had these classic characters embarking on a high seas adventure. There was also "Swabbies" ...

 Copyright 1983 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

... But the story of that particular 1980s era project should probably wait for another day. For now ... Just enjoy what's left of your three hour tour ... er ... Three day weekend, okay?

Your thoughts?

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  • I was just learning about Columbus and the true story of his his exploits (double menaing, there) a few days ago in History class... I think WDFA certianly did the right thing in dropping the Columbus movie.

    However, that "Swabbies" thing looks interesting; I'm now looking forward to your story on that one.

  • Jim said: "For one, Disney's storymen could never quite find a politically-correct way around the whole indigenous people problem."

    Hah! It's funny this should come up at the same time as there's a post over on John K's site showing how absurd it is for anybody to get offended by the "Injun Orange" fruit drink art from the old "Funny Face" line. If it was me designing this Mickey Mouse Columbus special, I'd represent the Indians as a bunch of Goofs, just like in that 1945 Goofy short, "Californy 'er Bust". And, yes, I'd play it completely for laughs, otherwise why even cast the damn thing with Mickey and the gang? It's a cartoon for crissake! Let the "Politically Correct" debate begin...

  • is this all Jim's got? I could  have waited for a full scale artical rather than this brashly put together thing.

  • Hi Jim,

    Wouldnt 1992 be the 500th Anniversary of Columbus' voyage, and not the 400th?

  • I had read about the Columbus & Arabian shorts before, but I've never heard of "Swabbies"...please write about that in the near future & not put it off for years!  ;-)

    I like Ponsonby Britt's idea of using Goofs- that sounds like the best, and most PC idea.  

  • Forget the politically correct argument.  How about the fact Columbus was a selfish jerk in it for his own riches and ambition and was a total bigot.  Hardly worthy of Mickey.  

  • I was working in Disney's comic strip department - - and yes, believe or not, Disney actually did comics at one time. Anyway, if memory serves, "Mickey Columbus" came out of comic story written by the very funny, Cal Howard.

    I remember seeing those Mickey storyboards back in the eighties, and the guys who worked on them all eventually became major players in the cartoon biz.

  • Although they made the right choice of skipping the Columbus tale, since Columbus wasn't even the first European to travel to North America, they should've continued making shorts.

    Some of what eventually ended up in Mickey Mouse Works/House of Mouse (Around the World in 80 Days) would've made great shorts. And they didn't have to be based from classic history or literature.

  • I am going to have to agree with someone here and it is -----boy toon wonder.

    The real issue isn't the Columbus role or th sticky politically correct issue; the real issue here is the loss of ANIMATED SHORTS. Why doesn't every Disney movie have a cartoon before it? It would beat the eight trailers, rules of the theater spots and ads that usually run before the feature.  "POCAHONTAS" could have had the Mickey as Columbus short in front of it featuring the residents of the New World as Goofs! That makes two people that I agree with; great thought Ponsonby Britt! I think there is a Goofy short in the works isn't there?

  • What interests me most about "Swabbies" is the character on the right - if I'm not mistaken, that's one of the Beagle Boys.  Since Ducktales was a few years after that, wouldn't this have been the first animated appearance of the Beagle Boys?

  • Those character designs for "Swabbies" look awesome.  Though I'm sure if the thing actually got made, they'd never end up looking like that in the end.

  • Maybe Disney could still release "Christopher Columbus" as a direct-to-WD-Treasures DVD?  :-)

  • Sometime today, Disney's "Tangled" will blow through the $100-million-in-domestic-ticket

  • Sometime today, Disney's "Tangled" will blow through the $100-million-in-domestic-ticket

  • Sometime today, Disney's "Tangled" will blow through the $100-million-in-domestic-ticket

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