A Year in Shorts Day 284: "Runaway Brain"
It’s hard to believe now, but Mickey Mouse once had a personality. I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But it’s true. Long before Mickey was the bland goody-two-shoes we all know and love (or else), Mickey had a mischievous streak. Over the years, Disney has tried to steer Mickey back towards his original characterization, from games like Epic Mickey to his new series starring the social worker who sews dead women into horses from those two episodes of Hannibal. But one of the weirdest (and undoubtedly most controversial) attempts came in 1995 with the truly off-the-wall short, Runaway Brain.
Chris Bailey's Runaway Brain lets you know right from the beginning that this isn't going to be your typical Mickey Mouse short. You see, it's Mickey and Minnie's anniversary (of their first date, mind you; it's important to remember that Mickey and Minnie are not married, kids), but instead of planning a romantic evening, Mickey spent his whole day playing a Snow White-themed fighting game instead. (By the by, I'd play the hell out of a Disney-themed fighting game. Magic Kombat?) That's the sort of behavior we'd expect from Donald, but Mickey? Something is terribly amiss. Desperate to save face, Mickey grabs a newspaper advertising a mini-golf course that he hopes to take Minnie too. Which, maybe on a normal date that'd work Mickey, but an anniversary? That shit's not gonna fly. Unfortunately for Mickey, however, Minnie's eyes spot a different ad for a trip to Hawaii. This is a problem for Mickey, as he's apparently unable to afford the nearly thousand dollar price tag this entails. Of course, this raises the rather important question of exactly how Mickey can't afford the trip. He's Mickey Freaking Mouse! Has his cheese habit finally gotten the better of him? Or does this predicament confirm my theory that the mischievous Mickey Mouse is just a character that the real, more boring Mickey Mouse plays? That would certainly explain the rest of the short, as Pluto finds an ad for Mickey to make money for a day of "mindless work." (A great deal of this short's conflict seems to be driven by characters reading advertisements, clearly a commentary on this age of consumerism.) And that, dear reader, is where shit gets crazy.
To go into too much detail on what happens next would give away the pleasure of discovering this short for yourself, something which Disney seems pretty keen on making sure you don't do. On the one hand, I can't say I'm surprised. This short is wild, and goes to some pretty dark places- mad science, horny monsters, mistaken identities, horrible fiery deaths and the voice of Kelsey Grammer are only some of the wacky shit you're in for. And frankly, it is glorious. It's genuinely hard to believe that this film was actually an official Disney release, although I guess the mid-90s were a strange and wonderful time for the studio. This short came out a year before The Hunchback of Notre Dame, after all. I guess Disney was willing to take more risks in those days, an attitude that's certainly been missing from the company for a while now. But even taking that into consideration can not prepare you for how truly out there this short is. If you've never considered the possibility that Minnie Mouse might wish death on someone over a minor slight or that Mickey Mouse is capable of experiencing sexual desire, this short will certainly challenge your preconceived notions.
Still, all that wouldn't amount to a hill of beans if the short surrounding it wasn't up to snuff. Novelty only gets you so far, after all. But I'm pleased to say that Runaway Brain matches its madcap energy with high quality animation and a consistently clever script. The short is filled with witty asides (would you expect anything less from a film which features Dr. Frasier Crane himself?), and the dialogue crackles in large part due to the chemistry between Wayne Allwine and Russi Taylor as Mickey and Minnie. The fact that the official voices of Mickey and Minnie were married in real life is one that never ceases to delight me, and it's reflected pretty wonderfully in their dynamic. The Mickey/Minnie relationship has never been one I particularly cared about, but Runaway Brain makes them fun to watch at least. Of course, the voice acting is only half of what brings the characters to life, and we shouldn't ignore the great character animation led by Andreas Deja. All the characters are wonderfully expressive, with a great deal of the story being told simply through how Mickey reacts to things. But really, the animation throughout the short is great, filled with moody and creepy backgrounds, surprisingly brutal sight gags and slapstick violence and all manner of fun continuity nods. My personal favorite is the moment in which Mickey uses the same hand gestures he used to describe himself in The Pointer, although there's a bit of an ironic twist on this one. And the action sequence is surprisingly well done. All in all, it's an impressive and entertaining short.
Runaway Brain, not surprisingly, received mixed review from audiences and critics alike, and it's clear that Disney would rather pretend it didn't happen. Apparently they were trying their best to make it so during production, interfering in several points, resulting in the short's brisk pace and truncated runtime. (That, funnily enough, is my only real issue with the cartoon, which feels like it ends before it can really get going.) And look, Runaway Brain certainly isn't for anyone. But at the same time, it's nothing to be ashamed of! Sure, it's a dark and bizarre short, but so what? That's the stuff that cult followings are made of! And Runaway Brain stands the chance of becoming a true cult classic if given the chance. So if you haven't seen the short yourself, I highly recommend seeking it out. You might not like it, but you'll almost certainly be surprised by it.
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