Three Spheres for the Mouse!

Years ago, the late paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould cited Mickey Mouse as an example of neoteny, the evolutionary tendency for adult members of a species to acquire over time the features of their own infant counterparts. For instance, while we humans may bear only a passing resemblance to our hominid ancestors, who would seem brutish to us (not to mention unusually hairy) if we met them at a party, we bear a much greater resemblance, with our dainty features and unsloping foreheads, to our ancestors’ babies. Mickey Mouse, according to Gould, demonstrated a kind of cartoon neoteny, having gone from the relatively rodentine mouse of Steamboat Willie:

Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie

to the cuter, more infantilized mouse of later decades:

Mickey as infant mouse

Notice the shorter snout and larger eyes, which Gould claimed were features of infant or fetal mice. At a stroke, Disney had removed what was repellent to most people about mice — the beady eyes and questing nose — and made Mickey as cuddly as, well, a baby.

While Mickey’s initial function was to star in cartoons, he gradually took on a secondary function, one that now seems to be his primary role, that of corporate symbol. Mickey’s face has become better known (and perhaps always was better known) than that of his creator, Walt Disney, and certainly better known than the faces of any of the CEOs who have run the Disney corporation since its founder’s death. Amy and I have an annual pass to Disneyland this year, so we’ve seen a lot of the Mickster lately. It hasn’t escaped our notice that Mickey’s progression from rodent to infantile mouse has proceeded to places that Stephen Jay Gould never envisioned. Mickey has, in fact, become a complete abstraction. As a logo for Disney, Mickey has gone from a smiling cartoon face:

Mickey's face

to an abstract sequence of ovals:

Mickey Mouse as three ovals

In this respect Mickey has followed the path of recognizable simplicity pioneered by the logos for such companies as Apple:

and Nike:

Nike Swoosh

The three-oval Mickey logo has considerable utility — for instance, as the instantly recognizable identifier for a television channel:

Disney Channel identification

You can see examples of the abstract Mickey Mouse throughout Disneyland, perhaps most strikingly in the park benches, where Mickey seems to have fallen over on one ear:

Mickey Mouse park bench

But what’s most interesting to me about the three-oval Mickey is that, perhaps to a greater extent than any other corporate logo, it lends itself to extension into the third dimension. Simply replace the ovals with spheres and you have a version of Mickey that an experienced 3D artist can create in about five seconds:

This three-sphere mouse can then be rotated into perspective view:

Mickey wireframe model in perspective

and painted with color to give it a realistic solidity:

Mickey color 3D model

Does that three-sphere form in any way resemble a mouse? Not really. Yet it’s instantly recognizable as both Mickey and as the public face of the Disney Corporation. (This says a great deal about the human ability to recognize faces and forms given only the sparest of visual cues.)

This three-sphere Mickey has even more utility than the three-oval Mickey. At Disneyland and Disney World you can see it in the form of balloons:

Mickey Mouse balloons

which sometimes glow in the dark:

Glowing Mickey Mouse balloons

Or as tasty beignets in a New Orleans Square restaurant:

Mickey Mouse Beignets

But my favorite application of the three-sphere Mickey can be found hanging on our tree this Christmas:

This ornament can be purchased at the Disneyland gift shops in several different designs and color schemes. You can even get it with a more realistic Mickey — to the extent that a cartoon mouse can ever be described with the adjective “realistic” — climbing on top of it:

Mickey Mouse realistic ornament

So the modern Mickey isn’t entirely about abstraction and simplification. However, it’s possible for Mickey to be abstracted without being especially simplified. At first glance this t-shirt (found under the same tree where those ornaments are hanging) seems to depict a random collection of planets and moons:

Mickey planet t-shirt

until you view it in the correct orientation:

Another Mickey planetary t-shirt

It’s Planetary Mickey!  An artist, or maybe a Photoshop expert, has taken a set of what are probably NASA photos of our solar system (there’s also a spiral galaxy posing as Mickey’s right ankle) and assembled a surprisingly complex Mickey image from them. No three-sphere Mickey here! Indeed, Planetary Mickey even has that little bump on the tip of his snout (I suspect it’s Venus or maybe — no joke intended — Pluto) that represents what remains of his rodent nose.

Mickey’s in his 80s now, which may explain why you rarely see him in cartoons any more, and you have to wonder what he thinks about his increasing abstractification. (Is that even a word?) I suppose I could ask him, because this also showed up under the Christmas tree:

Mickey Mouse in person

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