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Mything in Action: The Mouse is Mad ... and He's Got an Axe!

Mything in Action: The Mouse is Mad ... and He's Got an Axe!

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Have you seen Disney's new feature version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice? Although the film has garnered largely favorable reviews, including this one, the Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster hasn't quite stirred up the level of box office magic for which the studio had been hoping.

Disney's live action version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice conjured up mostly warm
reviews. Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc.
All right reserved

Nevertheless, the release of the movie got me thinking about an earlier Sorcerer's Apprentice: the one portrayed by Mickey Mouse in Disney's 1940 animated classic Fantasia. I even dusted off my old VHS copy of the feature (from the 1990 "50th anniversary" re-release) and found it to be just as enchanting as I'd remembered. And it seems I'm hardly alone in that sentiment; The Sorcerer's Apprentice is said to be among the most beloved Mickey Mouse shorts of all time, alongside Steamboat Willy. (I'm sure the 1995 Mickey short Runaway Brain would also be right up there on the audience favorites list, if only more people had seen it...but that's another story.)

Walt Disney had been playing with the idea of producing an animated version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice as far back as the spring of 1937, several months before the premiere of his first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He originally envisioned The Sorcerer's Apprentice as a Silly Symphonies featurette based upon and set to French composer Paul Dukas' 1897 orchestral scherzo of the same name. But as development of the short got underway in 1938, Walt soon realized it would make an excellent "tentpole" for a feature-length collection of musical animated shorts. Out of Walt's epiphany, Fantasia was born.

Walt Disney had started production on The Sorcerer's
Apprentice as a stand-alone Mickey short before
conceiving the rest of Fantasia. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In the years since, the Sorcerer Mickey character has embedded itself in the public psyche, becoming one of the most recognizable and popular incarnations of the Mouse. Today, Sorcerer Mickey serves as the logo for Walt Disney Imagineering and is the hero of the Fantasmic! nighttime spectacular at several Disney theme parks. A super-sized architectural version of Mickey's pointy sorcerer's hat tops the Walt Disney Feature Animation building in Burbank, California, while even larger versions rise over the themescapes of Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Resort Paris and Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort.

Sorcerer Mickey has become one of the Mouse's most popular incarnations.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So how does one explain the enduring popularity of Sorcerer Mickey and The Sorcerer's Apprentice? A lot of the credit belongs to the fact that the segment is simply a masterful work of animation, filled with brilliantly imaginative imagery brought to the screen by some of the most talented Disney animators of all time, including Disney Legends Fred Moore and Vladimir Tytla.

Of course, since my Mything in Action column is all about deciphering the hidden "mythic source code" in popular entertainment, you know I've got to attribute a large part of the sequence's popularity to its deep mythic resonance and its consummate use of key elements of the Campbellian Hero's Journey. The seamless integration of those elements into the work is all the more impressive given that Walt and his animators were doing so intuitively, as the mythologist Joseph Campbell was still years away from publicly enunciating his theory of the Hero's Journey at the time. (If Professor Campbell and his theory of the Hero's Journey are new to you, take a few moments to look at my "Hidden in Plain Sight" introductory article. You'll be glad you did.)

Walt Disney and his animators tapped into some deep mythic themes when
creating The Sorcerer's Apprentice ... though they may not have realized it at
the time. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Like every Hero's Journey, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is an initiatory adventure-a story that mark's the hero's transition from youthful immaturity to responsible adulthood-even though the hero may already be an adult at the beginning of his or her journey. The Hero's Journey resonates with audiences because it describes, metaphorically, the life adventure that we all face as we grow up and find ourselves in the great wide world.

While many Hero's Journey stories introduce us to the protagonist in the "Ordinary World," before the Call to Adventure has been issued, in The Sorcerer's Apprentice we find the title character already immersed in the "Special World" of the sorcerer's magical realm. Indeed, as the segment begins, Mickey is already at the "Inmost Cave" stage of his journey-the point at which the hero must face a "Supreme Ordeal"-a life-changing test of the hero's dedication and endurance.

Often in genre stories, the Inmost Cave may be symbolically represented as an enemy castle...a haunted house ... the belly of  a whale ... the bowels of the Death Star ... But in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the Inmost Cave is an actual cave. Here Mickey is first tempted and then tested by his own Supreme Ordeal, which ends in a humiliating "epic FAIL" as his reach proves to far exceed his grasp.

As it happens, failure is a common theme in mythic storytelling. In the classical Greek myth, young Icarus' flight-and life-are cut short when he impetuously flies too close to the sun, melting the wax that holds his mechanical wings together and sending him plummeting into the sea. In a far different time and place, Indiana Jones proves himself unprepared for his artifact-poaching quest at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He flees the booby-trapped temple with his life and his treasure, barely escaping with the former but quickly losing the latter to his slimy rival Belloq. I'm sure you can think of many other examples.

In the mythic Inmost Cave, heroes sometimes fail their Supreme Ordeal.
Copyright 2010 Paramount Pictures and  Lucasfilm. All rights reserved

Mickey, Indy, and Icky ("Icky"???) all learned that soaring ambition and smug self-confidence are no substitute for preparation, wisdom, and experience (all characteristics of a mature-or at least maturing-personality).

In the Inmost Cave of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Mickey's impetuousness merges with his delusions of competency. Donning his master's magical cap, he proceeds to commit a classically foolhardy act of hubris: he magically invests a common broom with life. Too bad Mickey had never seen Frankenstein, or Blade Runner, or The Terminator, or Jurassic Park ...or any of the other countless movies that detail the disastrous events that are set into motion when a mere mortal decides to "play God" by creating life out of lifelessness. (Nowadays, it's fashionable to refer to such a mistake as "a teachable moment.")

Soon Mickey will learn that it's all too easy to misuse one's power if one is not prepared to deal with the consequences. As Peter Parker / Spider-Man, another great mythic (super) hero discovered, "With great power comes great responsibility." Mickey even finds that chopping up his creation with an axe just makes matters worse. Only the sorcerer's timely return to the cave spares his hapless apprentice from literally drowning in the consequences of his actions.

Sorcerer Mickey learns how easy it is to get in over your head when you overreach
your abilities. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

No doubt, Walt Disney was drawn to the story of The Sorcerer's Apprentice by the same elements that make the ancient tale so appealing to the rest of us. But it seems likely that Walt also felt a deeper, more personal connection to the story, for much of Walt's career was centered on creating "life out of lifelessness" through the magic of animation.

It's also revealing that Walt specifically chose Mickey Mouse to play the title character. Supposedly, when the studio's animators began working on the segment in 1938, they suggested casting Dopey as the apprentice following the character's well-received debut in Snow White the year before. But Walt insisted that Mickey had to play the part. The scrappy rodent of those early years closely mirrored Walt's own personality (even though the sorcerer, whom the animators nicknamed "Yen Sid," supposedly embodied several of Walt's mannerisms, including his famously arched eyebrow). It is, after all, Walt's own voice that you hear in the character of Mickey, complimenting conductor Leopold Stokowski immediately after the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment.

Disney's animators partly based the sorcerer character on their
boss, but Walt himself personally identified with Mickey.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Like Sorcerer Mickey, Walt's natural impulse was to undertake schemes that seemed too grandiose to succeed, and Fantasia was a prime example of Walt's bet-it-all personality. And so, although audiences and critics noted its groundbreaking elements, Fantasia did not attain real commercial success until its 1969 re-release, by which time the Woodstock-era audiences had become more open to its "psychedelic" imagery. Today, of course, many consider Fantasia to be Walt's magnum opus. That pattern of risk (and sometimes failure) followed by redemptive success became the hallmark of Walt Disney's entertainment legacy.

Fantasia may have been too avant-garde for audiences
in 1940. But by 1969 a new generation of moviegoers
appreciated the movie's psychedelic imagery.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

As for audiences, we relate to Mickey in The Sorcerer's Apprentice because we can all relate to the nightmare of his "epic FAIL." While most of us have never been in the same specific situation (unless we've tried our hand at amateur plumbing, heaven forbid), we all know what it feels like to shoot for the stars, only to find ourselves surprised and overwhelmed when the sky comes crashing down around us. In the same way, The Sorcerer's Apprentice acknowledges and even celebrates the human tendency to overreach.

Though Walt Disney may have never thought of his career in terms of the Hero's Journey, he clearly understood and embraced the mythic message at the core of The Sorcerer's Apprentice: If we all refused the "Call to Adventure" and declined to strive beyond our abilities, nothing of value would ever be accomplished. (Plus, episodes of America's Funniest Home Videos would be a lot shorter and not nearly as hilarious.)

Adam M. Berger is president and senior writer at Berger Creative Associates, Inc., an Orlando, Florida-based creative writing and consulting firm serving the themed entertainment and attraction design industry. You can read more of Adam's thoughts on mythic storytelling in popular entertainment at his blogsite: www.TheMythingLink.com.

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  • "Largely favorable reviews"?

    It has a 41% on RottenTomatoes.

  • Well, the classic "myths" such as the Hero's Journey are pretty generalized ways to look at storytelling, I don't think Walt specifically looked at employing such myths in his work.  Good stories are alike in many ways, but why did Sorcerer's Apprentice fail?  I think it failed because the story was a classic "fish out of water tale" (at least that is one way to look at it) and other such films such as the failed Witch Mountain film were too.  You need real believability for this types of stories to float Jim, look at the new classic Tron film, it is also a classic fish out of water type tale.  But its story is a little bit better put together and more believable i.e. the world of Tron is an interesting place to explore, just like the opening scenes of Finding Nemo.

  • This column is the worst.  This myth stuff is total garbage.  Joseph Campbell went around the world's cultures picking elements out of stories like a food taster and called it some kind of theory, but I didn't think anyone took it seriously.    I guess that's why Adam Berger is a "creative" consultant who lives in Florida instead of any kind of creative professional in LA.

  • Very interesting, Adam.  A great morning read!

  • Great Article...Bravo Mr. Berger!

  • Fascinating column!

  • That psychedelic poster for Fantasia is hilarious. I remember seeing posters like that at movie theaters. I also remember the terrible prints those theaters used when they showed Fantasia. Oh well, at least the movie was appreciated - although I do think it's possible to enjoy it without toking up. (I'll never forget the funny, funny smell I once encountered when watching Fantasia as a kid at a theater. My mom would never tell me what that smell was. Now I know it was probably Mary Jane. Weird times back then, weird times.)

  • Adam,

    Wow, looks like your column is getting both good and bad reviews, about your theories, on "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" movie.

    This reminds me of something in the past:

    When I was working at Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida:

    I once asked one of our Disney animator, Lou Delarosa, about the meaning in "Banjo the Woodpile Cat", which he did under Don Bluth and Gary Goldman.

    Lou laughed, and just said the purpose of the short animated film, was "just to make money", and have fun doing the animated film.

    Lou said people shouldn't look for any hidden meanings in the story. There aren't any...

    Today, Don Bluth said "Banjo" was a learning experience for him and Gary Goldman and his artists, as independent animators.

    At the time, Don wanted to see if they could do Disney quality stories, and animation, with the sep lines, shadows, and special effects.

    Or, would they have to cut out such animation visual FX and embellishments, just to do an animated film on their own.

    Sometimes they did have to drop the seps and shadows.

    But no one is really trying to see if this and that fulfills any mythic undertones.


    It's too much trouble to work out a story like that, while you're under pressure to produce a film. Filmmakers start in the middle, pick the scenes that audiences/filmmakers want to see, then do the beginning, and then work out the satifying ending sequences.

    I told one of our crewmembers at FOX Animation (in 1997), all the audience needs is a satisfying ending, so a father can see that his wife and children enjoyed their trip to the movie theater, and the evening was a success for their family. That's all it has to be.

    The other animation artists also agreed with me, on this subject.


  • I loved the way you discuss the topic great work thanks for the share Your informative post.

  • Walt's natural impulse was to undertake schemes that seemed too grandiose to succeed, and Fantasia was a prime example of Walt's bet-it-all personality. And so, although audiences and critics noted its groundbreaking elements, Fantasia did not attain real commercial success until its 1969 re-release, by which time the Woodstock-era audiences had become more open to its "psychedelic" imagery

  • Wow nice post.

  • I am being a writer whenever I see any this kind of articles I really get interest in reading them and try to figure out the structure outline and plan behind it`s designing. I too have done these types of stories and posted them in blog page and have shared with my fellow students who are members in that blog.

  • Thumbs up for you! Internal Sources of Information: we talking, beer, coffee tea? What sort of strength?

  • It now takes me 7 clicks to do what used to happen instantly... good work

  • Only a truly special mind could come up with the high calibre of comments you do. Constantly leaving me gobsmacked with your phenomenally insightful opinions.

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