Runaway Brain, an Academy Award-nominated, seven-minute short animated primarily by Walt Disney Feature Animation Paris, was released on August 11, 1995, as part of the live-action feature A Kid in King Arthur’s Court.
The short marked the first appearance on Mickey Mouse on the big screen since the 1990 featurette The Prince and the Pauper.
Several story ideas were under consideration when animator Andreas Deja remembered that: “Someone at a meeting, and almost out of boredom, drew Mickey Mouse as a monster. Someone else saw it and said, ‘That’s hysterical!’ All of a sudden, the idea came up to do a satire of Frankenstein.”
While it does satirize the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, the mad doctor is named Dr. Frankenollie, a tribute to two of Disney’s legendary animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.
The design of the character is reminiscent of Professor Ecks, a mad scientist monkey Mickey tangled with in one of his classic 1933 comic-strip adventures drawn by Floyd Gottfredson. Dr. Frankenollie’s laboratory is located at 1313 Lobotomy Lane; Disneyland’s street address is 1313 Harbor Boulevard.
In the film, Mickey is at home intently focused on playing a video game. Minnie arrives to find that Mickey has forgotten their anniversary. Mickey comes up with a last-minute idea to take her to a miniature golf course, but Minnie misinterprets what she is supposed to be looking at in the newspaper and thinks Mickey is taking her to Hawaii.
Mickey finds a “help wanted” ad where he can earn the entire cost of the Hawaiian trip for one day of “mindless work.” Dr. Frankenollie intends to switch Mickey’s brain with that of his monster, Julius. The name Julius is a reference to one of Walt Disney’s first animated characters, a black cat in the Alice Comedies, though Julius looks more like a monstrous version of Mickey’s nemesis, Pete.
The brain transfer is a success, with Mickey’s mind ending up in Julius’ giant body, and Julius finding himself in control of Mickey’s body which now has wild eyes, sharp teeth, and ragged, torn ears.
The dimwitted Julius opens Mickey’s wallet and finds a photo of Mickey and Minnie. The rest of the contents of the wallet are a black-and-white picture from Steamboat Willie, a library card from Guillard County Library (#2495 21095), a Social Security card (#746-55-2769), a stamp, a ticket stub, and a coin.
Julius falls instantly in love with Minnie’s picture and escapes the laboratory to search for her.
Mickey in the monster body is finally able to convince Minnie of his real identity. A climatic battle between Mickey and Julius ensues on top of a building.
During the course of their battle, Julius and Mickey fall onto electric wires, which cause their minds to transfer back to their correct bodies.
Director Chris Bailey said: “My goal was to capture the appeal Mickey had in the black-and-white short days but place it in a color body.”
Bailey claimed that Mickey’s body was inspired by the short film The Little Whirlwind (1941) but the personality was from the black-and-white era of Two Gun Mickey (1934). “We watched a lot of the early shorts,” Bailey remembered.
Supervising animator Andreas Deja was selected to be Mickey’s supervising animator. He had previously animated Mickey in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Prince and the Pauper.
Deja’s favorite Mickey Mouse moments in animation include Brave Little Tailor (1938), Society Dog Show (1939), Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip (1940), and of course, the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Fantasia (1940). He used those scenes as inspiration for his work on Mickey.
Deja said: “It’s a kick to do this character that you’ve grown up with. You get the opportunity to pass it on and he gets a little encore in life. We all wanted to do something a little different with the character, though, a little edgier.”
The first animation Deja did on the short was the opening scene of Mickey playing a segment of the video game in which Dopey battles the Wicked Witch from Snow White who is throwing poisoned apples.
Deja recalled: “At first I wasn’t sure if we should push it with the video game sequence, but once I saw the designs and got into it, I thought it fit the character. He would do that now.”Runaway Brain was written by Tim Hauser who had worked on Beauty and the Beast and House of Mouse, and gotten his start as an animator working on such project as Sport Goofy in Soccermania.
The film had its beginning and its end produced in California, but most of its middle section was done at Walt Disney Feature Animation Paris, France.
Deja said about working with the French animators: “We had to go through lots of explanation, chalk-talk and explanation about how the character’s put together and how he’s drawn. They have a lot of talented people there.”
Although Runaway Brain received an Oscar nomination and was enjoyed by most of the people who saw it, many Disney Studio executives quietly commented that it was too much like a wacky Warner Brothers cartoon with its raucous action and swift pacing and didn’t like it at all.
Disney Merchandise was even more horrified. They couldn’t create items with Mickey in his huge monster body because it didn’t look like Mickey; it looked like a huge Frankenstein Pete. And if they created merchandise of Mickey’s body when Julius’s brain was in it, then they had this horrific-looking Mickey with sharp teeth and torn ears.
Director Bailey defended his artistic design choice: “We had the opportunity to play with a corporate symbol and not have it be him. We could scruff him up a little, give him shark teeth and have fun without tarnishing the image.”
Animator Deja added: “We knew we wouldn’t be jeopardizing his personality because it really wasn’t Mickey.
“The goal with Runaway Brain was to make a modern short that people wouldn’t confuse with a cartoon dug from the vault. That’s why I made him younger and a bit more aggressive, which was actually consistent with his early black-and-white film persona from films like Building a Building (1933).”Bailey recalled: “There was a management change near the end of production and the new powers were less comfortable with a monster’s brain running around in the corporate symbol’s body.
“Several shots were cut, drool removed and ending changed. America’s moms that didn’t see the cartoon but saw merchandise in the Disney stores thought Disney changed Mickey’s design just to appeal to the skateboard crowd. In that respect, they [the Disney Studio] probably see the cartoon as a misfire.”
Interestingly, Bailey’s work on this short got him a job as the Supervising Director on Kevin Smith’s short-lived animated series, Clerks.
Bailey recalled: “Kevin Smith didn’t know my name but liked the Mickey Mouse cartoon I directed titled Runaway Brain and wondered if I was available. I suppose he figured that anyone who could get a cartoon made at Disney where Mickey Mouse ran around like a mad monster would be a good fit for him.”
Runaway Brain remains a problematic Mickey Mouse short even though merchandise, such as a comic book adaptation by Gemstone comics (Mickey Mouse And Friends #269), continues to be produced.