Runaway Brain: Why Disney’s evil Mickey short movie will never be seen

In 2018, Disney celebrated Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday with a cavalcade of cross promotions. A 16,000 foot art exhibit was held in New York. Kristen Bell, Dwayne Johnson and Dwayne John hosted a special ABC TV program. There were also a variety of collaborations with high-profile brands such as Vans and Coach. Mickey’s entire career was celebrated company-wide for a full year, honoring his debut in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928 through his iconic appearance as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Walt Disney’s masterpiece Fantasia and more recent accomplishments like the Oscar-nominated short “Get a Horse” and the wildly popular Paul Rudish TV series.

Noticeably absent from the synergistic festivities, however, was the unearthing of the 1995’s “Runaway Brain,” which fans of Disney Animation have longed to see again. The film was not nominated for an Oscar but it played in competition at Cannes Film Festival. This short, which at that time had been the first Mickey Mouse-themed theatrical short, has since disappeared from the world. The short is not locked in the Disney Vault, it’s seemingly buried underneath it in a lead-lined box.

How “Runaway Brain” came to be, and why it’s been deemed a forbidden object in the years since, is one of the weirder stories in modern Disney history.

Welcome to the “lunatic fringe”

Walt Disney Feature Animation as it was then known had only narrowly escaped disaster in the early 1990s. In 1984, Walt Disney Feature Animation released The Black Cauldron, a hugely expensive dud, could have led to the unit’s demise. However, the new management team of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took control months prior to the movie’s release. After two decades of creative stagnation following the death of Walt Disney, Eisner made it a priority to return the company’s animation division to prominence. “We have to,” Eisner told Diane Sawyer on 60 Minutes When asked if the company could afford to continue making animated films, 1988 was the year. “That is our legacy.”

Eisner and the creative teams restored Disney Animation to the creative and commercial heights not seen since Walt’s heyday. Aladdin The Little Mermaid Beauty and the Beast weren’t merely animated features; they were cultural phenomena, collecting critical acclaim, box office glory and multiple Oscars. It stood to reason that Mickey Mouse, the company’s mascot, and a truly enduring global icon, could use a reinvention too.

It wasn’t that Mickey was neglected. The mouse’s 60th anniversary in 1988 was nearly as synergistic as in 2018, with a new (albeit temporary) land at Walt Disney World, a primetime special that co-starred Roger Rabbit, and a redesign that turned Mickey into a laid back, just-off-the-set-of-Miami Vicetype In 1990, George Scribner directed “The Prince and the Pauper,” a charming 30-minute film that starred two classically styled Mickeys, and was shown before The rescuers down under However, when? Rescuers bombed, so did Mickey’s reemergence, leaving the mouse hopelessly old fashioned in the collective mind of mass pop culture.

Mickey and Mickey swap clothes in The Prince and the Pauper

The Prince and the Pauper (1990)
Image: Walt Disney Animation

After the events of Rescuers, the hunt was on for a project that could bring Mickey into the ’90s. Disney animators had to be involved in a variety of projects aside from the main feature. These included conceptualizing and executing a sequel. FantasiaTo provide animation for future theme park attractions, and to brainstorm ideas for a new Mickey Mouse cartoon. Creative executive Kathleen Gavin, who was coming off Tim Burton’s Christmas Nightmare, was put in charge of these “outside projects,” which included shepherding an unproven northern California studio’s experimental animated feature called Toy Story. “They took anything that wasn’t the main feature and threw it into my world,” Gavin tells Polygon. At the time, Ralph Guggenheim from Pixar referred to Disney’s side projects as the “lunatic fringe.” Executives on the merch side were antsy to get Mickey out there in a “wacky and out-there” way, and it became a priority for Gavin’s team.

“If you were a director or part of the development, if you were between assignments, you were asked to develop Mickey shorts,” says Chris Bailey, the eventual director of “Runaway Brain.” “They just never made one. These were developed constantly. Eventually it just became my turn to develop Mickey shorts.” He didn’t expect his pitch to be produced either.

Bailey was an animator. The Great Mouse Detective Oliver & Company, and at the time of Disney’s Mickey initiative, was focused on directing, having worked on a film for the just-opened Euro Disney complex outside of Paris, France. He repurposed an idea he had from an old Roger Rabbit story, which was he said was abandoned after Disney showed it to him. Dick TracyInstead of Arachnophobia, and producer Steven Spielberg’s relationship with Disney had cooled. Bailey’s idea, “Tourist Trap,” saw Mickey and Donald heading on a vacation, and Donald “trying to off Mickey,” according to Bailey. It was a hit with Katzenberg, Disney Animation executive Thomas Schumacher, and Peter Schneider. It was certainly “wacky and out there” like Consumer Products wanted.

After a disastrous storyboard screening of “Tourist Trap” (according to Bailey “it went kerplunk”), Katzenberg told Bailey to “go back and fix it.” The animator thought any fix would “erode” the point of the short. “The cartoon had to be mean,” Bailey says. “If [executives’] problem was Donald trying to kill Mickey, because you couldn’t do that, the soft version would be nothing.” So, Bailey asked Roy Disney for permission to develop another one of his Mickey ideas instead. Roy gave his blessing, and with lifted spirits, Bailey began work on the equally off-beat “Runaway Brain.”

Runaway Brain: Monster Mickey attacks the Frankenstein doctor

“Runaway Brain” (1995)

It was created in 1993. Hocus Pocus had brought a bit of spookiness to the Disney brand, In “Runaway Brain” finds Mickey Mouse signing up for an experiment with scientist Dr. Frankenollie (voiced by Kelsey Grammer), with the hopes of paying for an expensive vacation for himself and Minnie. Frankenollie gives Mickey’s brain to a huge monster, and Mickey ends up with more than he expected. Mickey then must reunite his brain with his body, and without the help of Dr. Frankenollie — in one of the short’s darker turns, he is killed by the experiment. It is an intense race against time that involves a variety of dangerous scenarios. One example of this perilous scenario sees Mickey trying to seduce Minnie. Both Mickey and the monster are eventually electrocuted and their brains switch back. The short ends with Mickey and Minnie making it to Hawaii. They ride the monster through the water, propulsed by Minnie’s wallet photo.

Bailey assembled a murderer’s row of animation talent to bring “Runaway Brain” to life. Jim Beihold, a veteran of the “lunatic fringe” who had worked on everything from Roger Rabbit was Framed by WhoThe Nazi sequence The RocketeerTo oversee the layout, he was appointed by. Art director was Ian Gooding (still at Disney Animation). Andreas Deja was the animator of Scar. The Lion King, designed “Monster Mickey” based off Bailey’s sketches. “It was easy, even though you designed something against character, against personality,” Deja explains. “You use the cliches […] You don’t draw these puffy little fingers, instead you do these gnarly Frankenstein hands.”

Deja bent the tail of Walt Disney’s iconic mouse and gave him a scruffy neck “just to rough him up.” The idea was to reverse Mickey. “All that early Disney stuff, the cute characters, they were designed like stuffed animals; their wrists are always bigger than their arms, their ankles were bigger than their thighs, so they hang like stuffed animals. That’s the base of their appeal,” Bailey says. The team soon learned that Mickey was not as scary as they thought. “Jeffrey wanted it to be really aggressive and didn’t want anybody to mistake it for anything that had been dug out of the vault and Tom and Peter were more protective of the classic Mickey and more conservative.”

mickey plays video games in runaway brain

Image: Walt Disney Animation

Ultimately the more in-your-face version of “Runaway Brain,” protected by Katzenberg’s clout and driven by Bailey’s determination, won out. There are These wereSome ideas were just too far-fetched for the brief and had to be dropped. “Jeffrey wanted to do some cool video game thing,” Bailey says, which led to a shot outside the house where the audience hears gunfire and sees muzzle flashes. Short cut would take us inside, where we see Mickey shooting a virtual reality shotgun. BambiThe game. Bailey enthusiastically presented the idea to Schneider & Schumacher. “Peter looked at me,” the animators recalls, “and said, ‘Not a chance in hell.’”

Mickey played a final game for the team. Snow White and Seven DwarfsHowever, the fight would be just the beginning of corporate insanity. Still, the first true Mickey Mouse theatrical short since 1953’s “The Simple Things,” inched forward, considered the ideal way to modernize the character. And while “Runaway Brain” could have run aground like countless other attempts, it had something else going for it: an animation studio overseas recently acquired by Disney with nothing to do.

A Gutting Mickey

Disney acquired the three-year-old Brizzi Studios, founded by brothers Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, in 1989 at a moment of expansion into television animation and low-cost direct-to-video movies. Walt Disney Animation France was the name of this studio that produced animation. DuckTales the Movie – Treasure of the Lost LampYou can also see episodes from several Disney Afternoon series. But Disney had bigger plans.

At the time of “Runaway Brain,” the French studio was finishing up work on Goofy MovieIt is similar to the DuckTales movie was to be released as a “Disney MovieToon,” Disney’s branding for lower-budget fare. To bring the French animators closer to the main operation, they were handed Bailey’s short as their next assignment. “If it wasn’t for the fact that there was a hole in the new Paris studio’s schedule, these boards would have probably gone into the archives with all the others,” Bailey says. “But they needed to have a project and I had a project.’” So his team headed to France.

The crew was on vacation in France when something huge occurred: Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had been involved in a short and turbulent power struggle after the death tragically of Disney president Frank Wells left Disney. The crew of “Runaway Brain” didn’t think much of this; they even inserted a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag referencing the executive’s departure into the short. But Katzenberg was one of the short’s staunchest defenders and biggest cheerleaders, and when the team headed back to America with a mostly completed film, his absence was noticeable.

The Runaway Brain monster grabs Minnie

Image: Walt Disney Animation

Bailey offered a disclaimer prior to screening the film for California’s first time: The ending was going to be shown in one version, and then the other. After the first version was finished, Mickey and Minnie enjoyed a backyard party at a luau. Since they couldn’t go on their vacation, Mickey made it up to Minnie at home. They then showed a second ending, similar to the finished version, but instead of the giant monster chasing Mickey’s wallet photo of Minnie’s, the monster sought an effigy of Minnie, made out of pillows. Michael Eisner told Bailey, “Well that was a setup if I’ve ever seen one.” Everyone loved it. Bailey was “riding high.”

In a meeting the following day with Schumacher, Schneider, and others, it was clear that reality had set in. Despite the success of the screening, executives wanted to make cuts. Bailey fired back, saying that he wouldn’t cut anything.

“I was young and dumb and angry and didn’t manage that particularly well,” Bailey admits now. “Of course, they just made me cut all of that stuff anyway.”

Bailey lost Katzenberg, and there wasn’t anyone to protect him from Schneider or Schumacher. They brought in their editor, and it was a difficult task to create a new short. There were also pacing problems and the need to make new animation. “We were laboring over every frame in France, and we were making sure every scene cut perfectly to the next scene,” Beihold says. “And then we got it back here and an editor in the U.S. decided to cut it again.” Several sequences received extra scrutiny.

In early versions of the “Runaway Brain,” the monstrous Mickey was constantly drooling over Minnie, and one of the first edicts was to dial it down. “They just started saying, ‘you’ve got to cut the saliva,’ so I was fervently animating hook ups so that it wouldn’t be so choppy,” Bailey says. Deja remembers that the drool also was an issue. She believes Schneider had it removed. (Schneider did not agree to be a part of this article. These images were always a part the cartoon, but Katzenberg was gone so edicts became easier to order.

Another moment that got cut completely involved Mickey getting electrocuted, where his “head was boiling like a pot full of ballpark franks,” Bailey says. “As it stands, it actually looks like Mickey is getting electrocuted as opposed to a cartoon gag.”

Bailey was overwhelmed by the demands and tension grew between Bailey, Bailey, and his executives. He was exhausted, overworked and was now having to produce animated sequences that could salvage the pace and tone. He points to a sequence where Mickey is being locked into Frankenollie’s operating chair. Originally Mickey said, “I think I’m in trouble.” According to Beihold, Kathleen Gavin changed that to, ‘Talk about your ironclad contracts.’” (“It was a line that is only funny if you’re a producer,” he adds.) When asked, Gavin couldn’t recall the change, nor any request for cuts.

The short version was not good enough. The “effigy Minnie” ending, which played like gangbusters and got a sign-off from Eisner, was softened to the wallet photo. Bailey feels certain that Katzenberg’s superior ending would have been preserved if Katzenberg was still with the studio. “The fact that we started making this aggressive Mickey cartoon and when it was too late to retrofit it, it got beaten down with a rubber mallet,” Bailey says.

As the short neared completion, the crew could feel the studio’s enthusiasm for it slip further. “I can’t remember a specific moment when I realized that they weren’t really behind it,” Beihold says. “It was a gradual realization.” According to the director, Schneider and Schumacher openly hated it. Gavin claims that she saw the studio abandon it after they selected which film to attach it to. A Kid in King Arthur’s Court. Disney Consumer Products’ initial enthusiasm was not matched by production. It was feared Bailey and his staff had overpushed Mickey.

It’s gone, but it is not forgotten

Mickey Mouse returned to the Oscars on March 25, 1996. “Runaway Brain” was nominated for Best Animated Short at the 68th Academy Awards, ultimately losing to the Wallace and Gromit short “A Close Shave,” from Aardman Animation, who Kathleen Gavin had incidently been wooing to work with Disney. John Lasseter received a Special Achievement Award that year. Toy Story. In our interview, Bailey didn’t have anything to say about the Oscars. Deja can’t remember if he went.

Bailey had finished his tenure at Walt Disney Company. He had spent 10 years at the Walt Disney Company, and ended his tenure with the tedium of “Runaway Brain.” “Because the cartoon wasn’t really perceived that great, I felt like I didn’t want to animate anymore and the opportunities there were slim, I thought it was time to leave,” Bailey says. Losing the Oscar didn’t help.

After the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where the short also bowed, Bailey left the Disney and “Runaway Brain” was all but forgotten. The film was printed in several international countries that year. Goofy Movie Notre Dame: The Hunchback It was never shown on Disney Channel, as many shorts were. Disney thought about attaching the clip to their new live action version of Live Action in November 1996. 101 Dalmatians. Old message board posts indicate that prints of “Runaway Brain” had even been shipped to theaters, but at the last minute Disney ordered the short to be removed and replaced with trailers for upcoming Disney features. But the notice came so late that some theaters wound up showing “Runaway Brain” with 101 DalmatiansHowever.

A “Runaway Brain” shirt spotted at Disney California Adventure this October

A “Runaway Brain” shirt spotted at Disney California Adventure this October
Drew Taylor.

When we reached out to Walt Disney Animation Studios for this piece, representatives declined to shed light on whether there’s a future for “Runaway Brain.” The short cannot be viewed on Disney Plus and has had only a single official home video release, in a long out-of-print collection called Mickey Mouse, Living Color Volume Tw0. Surprisingly new merchandise has appeared over the years for the movie, often from overseas. Bailey ran off to find some merchandise while we were talking. When I was talking to Beihold, he grabbed perhaps the most infamous piece of merchandise: a “Runaway Brain” crew jacket.

Deja recalls the one time a crewmember wore the jacket to Disneyland Paris: “There was this woman in the store on Main Street, who was so upset because she thought this was a counterfeit jacket. She almost ran after the man and shouted at him. ‘How can you wear something like this at Disneyland? This shouldn’t be legal!’ I was actually kind of touched by it because she thought that Mickey should be protected, from her point of view.” Bailey says the company had a similar corporate line; at least one other crew member was reprimanded for wearing a “Runaway Brain” shirt in public.

Biehold says he heard from his wife, who later joined Disney Animation, that “Runaway Brain” was used internally as “an example of what not to do.” Gavin refutes the idea that it is being purposefully buried. “I don’t think it has a bad rap. It hasn’t been out enough to have a rap,” she says. The short, despite being incarcerated for 25 years, has a certain air of malice to it, especially considering that the film is not unlike. Song of the South, doesn’t feature any grossly outdated stereotypes or questionable material.

Shortly before publishing this story, a source told me that the company does what it can to keep “Runaway Brain” hidden and out of sight. It is quite sad that a film with such incredible artistry and unique sensibilities should be kept out of sight. Disney is putting at risk a wonderful, charming short film into a legend.

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