INTERVIEW: Disney composer Christopher Willis talks making music for ‘Runaway Railway’ ride, Mickey Mouse Halloween special

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When “Mickey Mouse” premiered in 2013, it brought the humor of classic Mickey shorts to a new generation of fans. The show features Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy and Pluto in modern settings and stories tend to have a bit of an edge. “Duck the Halls: A Mickey Mouse Christmas Special,” for example, sees Donald Duck on the brink of death because he’s determined to have a real winter holiday with his friends instead of migrating south.

The show’s composer, Christopher Willis, has worked on all four seasons of “Mickey Mouse,” including the 2016 Christmas special and the upcoming Halloween episode titled “The Scariest Story Ever: A Mickey Mouse Halloween Spooktacular.” Willis spoke with Inside the Magic about his work on the series and what Walt Disney World guests can look forward to on the new Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway attraction, which is based on the animated “Mickey Mouse” shorts.

Christoper Willis at 2014 Annie Awards

I loved the Christmas special, so I’m really looking forward to the Halloween episode.

Thanks very much. I think it’s wonderful. It’s very much what you would hope – it feels very spooky and festive in that particular Halloween way. The Halloween special has two more songs than the Christmas special; one is in the end credits and the other one happens in the middle of the action.

Were there any highlights from the Halloween special you really enjoyed working on?

In the episode, Mickey is trying to keep Huey, Dewey, and Louie entertained with scary stories and he’s not doing very well. What that means for me, musically, is that for each of the stories we go into a different stylistic world so I have to completely change gears, which is huge fun. I shouldn’t give too much away, but there’s some old-fashioned 1930s song music you hear and then there’s some very 1980s music, and then there’s some creepy Disney music, which provides more scares than one would expect.

Haunted Mansion-style?

There is some of that kind of thing. There’s also the tradition of European folk tales told in that Disney way.

In the Christmas special, it felt like there were a lot of references to classic Christmas things, like the Bing Crosby-inspired opening number and the sequence when Mickey’s childhood seems straight out of a Dickens novel. Did you have any specific references when creating those moments?

We listened to and watched lots of those things. We wanted to keep it vague so nostalgic feelings flood your brain without pointing to one specific place. It’s that yesteryear that seems to feel very Christmas-y in itself. It’s the crooners and their specials. Beyond that, there’s all the Victorian imagery of Christmas, which you get in the section where Mickey is reminiscing about his childhood, which inexplicably seems to be in about 1830 [Laughs].

There’s a wonderful Andy Williams Christmas special that we watched and endless images from that era that I saw papered around TVA [Disney Television Animation], and discussion about what felt Christmas-y in that vintage, timeless way.

You’ve been composing music for the “Mickey Mouse” series since it premiered in 2013, but how early did you get involved?

I pitched for the show in summer 2012. We worked on the first few over the rest of 2012 and they started airing in early 2013. I did a version of “No Service” [Season 1, Episode 2] and “Tokyo Go” [Season 1, Episode 5] to be cast for it. At that early stage they hadn’t animated yet, so these were demos that were written to animatics [an animated storyboard]. I met with Paul Rudish [executive producer and director], Aaron Springer [director], and Jay Stutler [Vice President, Music, Disney Television Animation], and Illya Owens [editor]. They showed me the animatics to “Yodelberg” [Season 1, Episode 3] and “Tokyo Go,” and a few others, and of course the episodes are completely crazy. It was a lot to take in.

We started getting into some very interesting conversations about what “Mickey Mouse” should sound like. We had this strange feeling the 1930s was a good place for Mickey Mouse-sounding music; New Orleans jazz, cabaret, small groups of musicians. And then strangely, the 50s and 60s when you get into Henry Mancini [Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther] — it’s almost kitsch, like the music you heard in TV commercials. But in between those two periods, with swing and war time big band sound, that didn’t seem quite so Mickey. Eventually I realized it’s because Mickey was born in the 20s and 30s and he had a kind of rebirth with Disneyland, so there’s these two hotspots in the 20th century with a very particular musical landscape.

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