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So what is Goofy?

It's taken 60 years for Disney's Mickey and Goofy to evolve from amoral barnyard anarchist and loveable Everygoof to Nineties moralists. Yup, they're back, with a new agenda. By Nick Hasted
Mickey's a mouse, says one of the kids in Stand By Me. Donald's a duck. Pluto's a dog. So what's Goofy? In a memo written in 1934, Disney animator Art Babbitt told all. "Think of the Goof as a composite of an everlasting optimist, a gullible Good Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless, good-natured colored boy and a hick," he told his staff. "His brain is rather vapoury. He laughs at his own jokes, because he can't understand any others. He is very courteous and apologetic and his faux pas embarrass him, but he tries to laugh off his errors. He talks to himself because it is easier for him to know what he is thinking if he hears it first." He was a holy fool, a sort of Thirties Gazza, though he was not to "drool or shriek". As to what he looked like, Babbitt admitted "a vague similarity" between "the Goof's head and Pluto's". But their animation was to be "entirely different". "One is dog. The other human."

By 1935, all of Disney's stars had been similarly defined. Pluto was "not too smart", Donald was "an ego show-off". Mickey, in contrast to the others, was "not a clown". To this, Mickey's animator at the time touchingly added that he should be like a "young boy". Few cartoon casts can ever have been so carefully analysed, so lovingly assembled. And for the past 60 years, in essence, they've stayed the same. In their relation to the world around them, though, they've changed again and again. The release this week of a new Goofy feature and a short with Mickey reveals the characters' Nineties personas.

It all began with the Mouse, as Walt Disney never tired of saying. Mickey was just another "funny animal" when he was created in 1928. But, thanks to Disney's foresight at the dawn of talkies, he was the first "funny animal" with a voice (Walt Disney's own). He was a mechanical novelty before he was a character. This original Mickey, created by unknown, irresponsible men, had no niceties. This Mickey was a barnyard mouse, amoral and violent, the anarchic centre of crude animation. It was fame that changed him first. In 1931, the Motion Picture Herald noted widespread outrage among parents at Mickey's rough ways. "Now we find that Mickey is not to drink, smoke, or tease the stock in the barnyard," the paper sighed. Mickey was also no longer unique. Goofy arrived in 1932, Donald in 1934. These were sophisticated characters. Disney knew his old Mouse couldn't match them. So in 1939, to keep up with the times, Mickey was changed again.

Mickey, along with much of America, moved to the suburbs. He took Donald and Goofy with him. His original barnyard companions, Horace Horseshoe and Clarabelle Cow, and the wild young mouse he had once been were ruthlessly expunged. Some still remember their dismay. "I think Mickey sold out, became a middle-class Uncle Tom mouse," children's illustrator Maurice Sendak recalled recently. "He became completely boring." The next year Mickey's spirit was briefly revived, in Fantasia. But he did little else. He left the Forties to Donald, sitting out the war on his porch with Minnie (a Disney memo let it be known that they had always been married.) In 1946, a busy Walt Disney even gave his best-loved character's voice away.

It was in this period that Goofy, more flexible than Mickey, came into his own. In the Thirties, Goofy had worked as a trio with Mickey and Donald. But in 1941 the trio split, and Jack Kinney took the character over. Goofy's new direction was set with Kinney's first effort, How to Ride a Horse. Goofy would demonstrate various aspects of modern culture, badly. Ballroom dancing, football, driving - Goofy couldn't do any of it. The How to... series, like Mickey's move to the suburbs, put Goofy in touch with America in the Forties. The good-natured imbecile of Babbitt's original vision, with a touch of viciousness thrown in (watch Hockey Homicide), made Goofy an adult, in a way Mickey could never be. Even his goofiness no longer set him apart. In the How to... cartoons, everyone was Goofy. Disney's stupidest character was revealed as his most flexible intellectual property. Goofy, the big dope, was a wry satirist.

In the end, it made no difference. In 1955, the short films where Mickey and Goofy belonged were quietly shut down. Of course it was Mickey who Walt Disney saved from the dole queue. He took his favourite with him to TV, as the mascot of the Fifties Mousketeers, then on to Disneyland, where, now life-sized, Mickey became the "Ambassador of Happiness". Mickey still appeared on Disney merchandise, every child still grew up knowing his face, he was a character in best-selling comic books. But as a cartoon character, someone with a personality children knew, he seemed finally to have faded away.

Until this week. A Goofy Movie and the new Mickey short, Runaway Brain, show that Disney's stars still have something left to say. A Goofy Movie, especially, seems determined to force its Depression-era idiot into modern complexities, to test his "everlasting optimism" to the limit. A loveable half-wit in the Thirties, a struggling Everygoof in the Forties, Goofy's innocence is an embarrassment now. A Goofy Movie presents him as a single parent, attempting to raise his son Max in a Nineties version of the California suburb where Mickey took his gang in 1939. But for Goofy, it still is 1939. His favourite song is a crackly "High Hopes". His idea of a "bonding" road trip with his son is to visit a creaky entertainment in the mountains which he remembers from when he was young. The social satire of the How to... Goofy has turned queasily inward. Max's worst nightmare is to grow up like his goof of a Dad. It all turns out for the best, of course. But the idea of Disney making a film about how out of place Goofy is in the Nineties still catches the breath.

No one would do that with Mickey, of course. But Runaway Brain's plot - Mickey's brain is swapped with a monster, who chases Minnie in Mickey's body until the real Mickey saves the day - is out of the ordinary, too. It seems that 60 years after its stars were first softened for popular consumption, someone at Disney has decided its time they learnt to face the real world. The Mouse and the Goof aren't finished after all

'A Goofy Movie' and 'Runaway Brain' are released on Friday.