Early collaboration between the two now-iconic animators Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, Plane Crazy, was the first time that the character of Mickey Mouse was shown to test audiences in 1928. Despite the masterful animation style, it did not do well and the filmmakers could not find a distributor who was willing to pick up their work. Initially intended as a silent film, Plane Crazy gained popularity later when it was re-released with sound after the unprecedented success of Steamboat Willie.
The film follows Mickey Mouse (who would soon become Disney’s most popular character) as he tries to engineer an aircraft in order to embark on a voyage like the great aviator Charles Lindbergh who flew from New York to Paris without stopping. Now remembered as the first animated film to feature a camera move, Plane Crazy‘s real strength is its use of shifting perspectives and its visual impact on the cinematic medium. To achieve such effects, stacks of books were used as stands to reduce the distance between the artwork and the camera.
Iwerks worked on the animation alone for two weeks straight, producing over 700 drawings a day! The result is a perfect example of animated brilliance, giving audiences an insight into the potential of the art form. However, the narrative is problematic (especially for newer audiences who do not share the sensibilities of that period). We see Mickey Mouse forcing himself onto Minnie Mouse while taking her on a ride, even threatening her life by launching her into the air to scare her into kissing him. When Walt Disney said that “you have to appeal to the adult… the children don’t have any money,” he knew what he was talking about.
Many critics have attributed the delinquency to the pre-Code era, viewing Plane Crazy as an interesting intersection of perverted misogyny and layered messaging. As if it is an act of retribution, Mickey crashes to the ground and gets smacked for his failure to abide by the simple rule of “no means no.” One audience member rightly recalled Plane Crazy as “Mickey’s first sexual assault,” alluding to the history of problematic messaging that Disney stuffed into the construction of the cartoon mouse. Having said that, Plane Crazy still remains a vital part of the history of animation for all its wonderful and pioneering technical achievements.
Disney explained in an interview: “Of all the inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language. I certainly believe in being an innovator. And pictures can certainly help in that regard.”
Mickey Mouse has preserved his enormous legacy of being one of the most instantly recognisable cartoon characters of all time and Plane Crazy was the film that started it all, despite its initial failure. It has been continuously referred to in not only the works of the Disney universe but in films like Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso as a tribute to the undeniable influence of Plane Crazy’s animation on other pioneers of the genre.