Generation VHS: "Runaway Brain"

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Last time we met, Generation VHS grabbed a quick bite to eat at Good Burger with Kenan and Kel, the Abbott and Costello of their time. I was planning on showcasing yet another feature-length cult classic, but last week, I was taking a stroll down Internet lane when a thought popped into my head.

“Would ‘Runaway Brain,’ the '90s Disney theatrical short starring Mickey Mouse, be on YouTube?”

A quick search showed that, indeed, it was. I had a few minutes to spare, so I hopped in the Gen. VHS WAYBAC time machine (CL has it on loan from Mr. Peabody) and went back to the mid-'90s to experience one of the strangest things I viewed as a child.

Maybe I should start by clearing up an important aspect of my nerd-dom. I was raised in a Disney family. Sure, most families carried this same love of all things Walt Disney, but mine had a special infatuation with the Mouse House — an infatuation I partly credit as to why I’m the film nut I am today.

My childhood was filled with three key aspects that I mentioned a few weeks ago talking about Space Jam. Disney, Jim Henson and the Looney Tunes formed a trifecta of entertainment that blasted into my brain a love of all things cinema. I was even instantly hooked whenever any of the companies' logos popped up on the TV screen. Disney had the magical castle with the whimsical music and blue background; the Muppets had Kermit’s face being formed by what looked like a laser; the Looney Tunes had the silly symphony that introduces each short.

I could probably name at least 75 percent of the VHS movies that entered my daily rotation as a kid that wore the Disney brand. But there was always a trademark sweetness that accompanied any film or cartoon short. Even if I missed the logo, I could usually tell that what I was watching had to have some sort of connection to the Mouse.

Around the time I was able to make trips out to the multiplex, Disney movies were always frequented. A few of my more analytical friends may debate me on the ability of human memory, but I remember going to see The Lion King in 1994 when I was a kid around 2 years old. 1995 is much less fuzzy: I have no problem remembering trips to the movies to see Pocahontas, Babe (not Disney, but I remember it) and Toy Story (viewings one, two and three).

I also remember taking a trip to see 1995’s A Goofy Movie with my pops.

Goofy always had a specific resonance in the Woodroof household because Pa Woodroof was quite the fan of the bumbling cartoon canine. The top-tier Disney characters (Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Pluto, Donald the Duck, Daisy Duck, Pete the whatever … dog, maybe?) were no strangers to my television set, soaking in whatever I could from classic cartoons and early '90s on the early incarnation of Disney Channel (Goof Troop, DuckTales, TaleSpin, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers).

So, having already been familiar with Goofy and Co., seeing A Goofy Movie was a special treat. I’m going to re-watch A Goofy Movie and its direct-to-home video sequel An Extremely Goofy Movie at some point (the latter is on streaming paradise Netflix), and they definitely deserve a place in Gen. VHS’s cult annals. But for today at least, I want to talk a little about the short that proceeded A Goofy Movie in theaters, “Runaway Brain.”

“Runaway Brain” is one of the great oddities produced by Disney in the '90s. The strange yet oh-so-satisfying short follows Mickey, portrayed as a heavy-eyed gamer, forgetting his anniversary with longtime girlfriend Minnie. When Minnie reveals her desire to spend the big day in Hawaii, Mickey tries to figure out a way to scrounge up enough cash to embark on the trip. (You’d think that Mickey Mouse might have a few Franklins tucked away somewhere. Not so.)

An ad in the paper leads our hero to the office of a Dr. Frankenollie (a one-minute voice role for Kelsey Grammer) for a strange experiment involving the brains of Mickey and a gargantuan beast known as Julius (closely resembling Pete the whatever, with the great voice actor Jim Cummings taking on the role). What follows is bizarre for Disney standards, and I encourage you to give the short a watch above if you’ve got seven minutes to spare.

‘Runaway Brain’ deserves cult status due to its sheer insanity. Here’s Mickey Mouse, the prized figurehead for the Walt Disney corporation, taking part in what looks like an episode of twisted late-'90s gem Courage the Cowardly Dog. Everything just feels so … un-Disney. The animation is great, and the mood had me pinned to my seat when I first viewed the short in the mid-'90s. It was so unlike anything I had ever seen with the Disney logo, lacking that trademark sweetness that put the studio on the map.

Disney must have been pretty proud of its creation, having attached it to a few of their movies. I don’t remember seeing it with A Goofy Movie (although I’m sure I did) — a better guess would have been '95’s A Kid in King Arthur's Court (starring Daniel Craig and a tagline of “Joust Do It”) or '96’s George of the Jungle (I’ll blog about George later and leave the kid with Bond).

It was a weird pleasure to watch Mickey and friends taking part in such a darkly fun piece of animation. The Academy must have enjoyed it, having nominated the film for Best Animated Short. It lost out to an episode of Wallace and Gromit, but still, a nomination is something to note.

It’s sad that Disney hasn’t managed to find a way to incorporate the classic Disney characters into its featured programming. Most kids are familiar with Mickey Mouse and Co., but not on the level that Gen. VHS is. Bugs Bunny got a couple of theatrical releases — where’s Mickeys?

Thankfully, Disney is bringing back the old-school Mickey Mouse for a short entitled “Get a Horse!,” which might accompany the new film Frozen later this year.

If Disney ever decides to produce a feature-length film starring the company mascot, I think that “Runaway Brain” would be a great template to follow. It’s edgy for its time — a renegade piece of work that pushes the envelope with a cartoon character cherished by billions. I doubt that we’d get something as unique as this wonderful piece of Disney history, but I’d love to see a non-vanilla take on Mickey and friends, ushering in a new generation on the wonders that the characters that helped launch a powerhouse of entertainment.

For now, “Runaway Brain” stands as one of the great unknown Disney gems of the '90s — one that firmly takes a special place in the memories of Gen. VHS.

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