Ralph Bakshi: Defending Mighty Mouse

The renegade animator comes to save the day

Mighty Mouse in the MIGHTY MOUSE episode, 'The Mysterious Package.' Original air date, December 15th, 1961 Credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Has the secret of Mighty Mouse's extraordinary powers finally been revealed? Last December, CBS ran a Saturday-morning cartoon in which the forty-six-year-old superrodent was caught sniffing what some viewers believed was a controlled substance. The scene was only three and a half seconds long, but the avalanche of letters it triggered was something only Wile E. Coyote could imagine. In July the scene was cut from the episode so that the sniff would not be rerun, and it was announced that Mighty Mouse's name and likeness would be donated to an antidrug campaign, complete with T-shirts and school supplies. But doubts still linger. Mighty Mouse a cokehead? No way, insists the producer of M.M.'s show, Ralph Bakshi, whose credits include such controversial animated features as Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin. The only thing that turns this mouse on, says Bakshi, is Truth, Justice and Cheddar.

So what happened? Why did Mighty Mouse get into so much trouble?
I'll tell you the story. The cartoon had this flower girl who's standing on a street corner selling flowers to passers-by in the snow. Mighty Mouse tries to help her, and she keeps sending him away, telling him, "No, there are more unfortunate people for you to help than me." And she gives him a flower, which Mighty Mouse puts away. Later on, after he saves some ants from some lobsters. . .

He saves some ants from some lobsters?
Yeah, they're on the beach, and there's this war going on between the lobsters and the ants, and Mighty Mouse helps save the ants. Anyway, afterward, Mighty Mouse is thinking about this flower girl, and he takes out these flower petals and sniffs them.

And that's the only thing that got him in trouble?
Yeah. Allen Wildmon [associate director of the American Family Association] sees this, and he prints up all these black-and-white stills of the shot and sends them out to congressmen and newspapers, saying that Mighty Mouse is sniffing cocaine. . . .

Did it actually look like Mighty Mouse was sniffing cocaine?
No, of course not. He sniffs the petals right out of the palm of his hand. There was no rolled-up twenty-dollar bill or anything. No wink at the audience. Nothing like that. Wildmon could just as easily have pointed to Popeye inhaling spinach through his nose because his hads were tied up, for instance. He could have pointed to Tinker Bell's dust as being cocaine. He could have pointed to the Cheshire Cat . . . I mean, there are 8 million sniffs in animation. Think about it: the sniff is really a staple.

Why do you think they decided to make an example of Mighty Mouse?
Because of Fritz the Cat. They think I'm a pornographer.                                        

Has Mighty Mouse's integrity as a superhero ever been questioned before?
The worst thing you can say about Mighty Mouse is that he's a superhero in a world that doesn't want superheroes. He doesn't drink; he doesn't smoke; he doesn't do drugs. He's very straight, even pompous. You know, "Here I come to save the day!" He's that kind of guy. He's simple, but he's a little insecure. Being a superhero isn't exactly a hip thing today. So he's very good-natured, but he tends to trip over his own feet once in a while.

Can you say anything more about the source of Mighty Mouse's powers? This whole drug controversy has raised some rather ugly questions. . . .
Mighty Mouse's powers are pretty much taken for granted – they're never really explained except in the original episode, forty-six years ago. He had eaten some rotten cereal in the market, and that's what did it. That's what made him mighty. Back then, though, he was called Super Mouse. But then he had to change his name because Superman comics had the super copyright.

You ended up cutting the sniffing scene – three and a half seconds. Were you upset about that?
Not at all. I'm not doing Sergei Eisenstein here.

But it took seven months for you to make that decision.
Oh, yeah. I started realizing that it was becoming an issue. These kids in the first, second and third grade were starting to discuss it – to discuss cocaine – and I didn't want that. When I realized that was becoming the issue, that's when I made the decision. Not because of Allen Wildmon.

Has this whole controversy spooked you at all? Has it forced you to make any other changes?
Not really. Well, we did do one thing. We have this new Mighty Mouse episode with Bad Bat that we were going to call "The Bat with the Golden Arm," based on The Man with the Golden Arm. See, Bad Bat can't stop telling these terrible jokes, and everyone's vomiting around him. So Mighty Mouse takes him into a room and tries to break him of telling bad jokes. And, of course, Bad Bat sneaks out at night, saying, "I'm weak, I'm weak. Give me a one-liner!" We've decided to change the title to "The Bat with the Golden Tongue."

What's the future look like now for Mighty Mouse?
I'm thinking of doing a feature film with him. But I have to find a story that's worthy of the mouse. I love that guy a lot.

How about your future?
Right now, I'm working on something else, another feature film. It's a history of the Sixties, the whole decade in animation with animals and inanimate objects. It's tentatively titled Like a Rolling Stone. It should be out by next summer.

How did you get hooked up with Mighty Mouse in the first place?
I broke into the business with Mighty Mouse, back in the Fifties. It was one of my first jobs. Then I quit animation in 1982 to devote myself full time to painting. Last season, I needed a gig – I mean, it was five years without working. I don't know how I thought of Mighty Mouse. But there he was.

I've heard that Mighty Mouse will make a reference to this whole cocaine controversy in an upcoming cartoon episode.
There's another flower girl trying to sell him a flower, and Mighty Mouse yells, "No!" It's sort of an inside joke for me and my animators. Mighty Mouse will never go near another flower for the rest of his life. He's not even going to sniff mustard on a hot dog.