What’s so great about Steamboat Willie?
The 1928 first appearance of the character who became Mickey Mouse entered the public domain on New Year’s Day. Should anybody care?
By Brad Berens
On New Year’s Day, an avalanche of works from 1928 entered the public domain, their copyrights having expired after 95 years. Walt Disney’s almost eight minute Steamboat Willie cartoon earned a disproportionate amount of media attention because it was the first appearance of the character who later became Mickey Mouse. (You can watch the cartoon in its entirety here.)
Within hours, we learned about two forthcoming horror movies featuring Willie, or at least a Scream-like character wearing a Willie mask. This follows the lead of Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, a horror movie that came out shortly after the first A. A. Milne book went into the public domain a year ago.
Other literary works with previous movie and TV incarnations that came into the public domain this year include Peter Pan (although only in the U.S.), Tarzan: Lord of the Jungle, three early Hardy Boys adventures, an Agatha Christie mystery, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Back to Steamboat Willie, in addition to the horror movies, Ruben Bolling announced that Willie is a new character in his long-running Tom the Dancing Bug comic; it features six hot takes on the character that the Walt Disney Company would never have allowed. Also, Randy Milholland (who creates the newspaper strip Popeye) launched “Mousetrapped,” a blog with more innocent (but still edgier than Disney) takes on the character.
While acknowledging that there’s no accounting for taste, so far my response to the different adaptations of the Steamboat Willie character is, “ho hum.” Sure, it’s early days, and it’s fun to make Willie say things that criticize Disney’s corporate practices, to put Willie and his girlfriend in bed together, or to use Willie in horror—the most distant genre from the Disney sensibility. But it didn’t make me think, “oh… nice.”
I don’t think it’s as big a deal that Steamboat Willie is now in the public domain as the media coverage suggests. This is for three reasons:
First: Steamboat Willie isn’t an interesting story, and the future Mickey isn’t an interesting character. Willie is generic, a mischievous scamp who isn’t very good at his job as the Gilligan-like second banana on a steamboat. Willie and the future Minnie perform a silly musical version of “Turkey in the Straw” using different animals as their instruments. It’s cute, but there isn’t much there for another artist to adapt.
One reason the cartoon is so famous is that it was a big technical leap forward, adding synchronized sound. Another is that Willie was the seed that became the iconic Mickey, but that doesn’t make the seed compelling except for historical reasons.
Even the mature Mickey Mouse character isn’t all that interesting: Mickey tends to be the calm center around which the antics of his more excitable pals (Goofy, Donald, Pluto) revolve. I watched numberless Disney cartoons with my kids when they were younger, but looking back the only compelling story with Mickey at the center was the sequence from Fantasia (1940, so it won’t come into the public domain until 2036) where Mickey plays the sorcerer’s apprentice with music by Paul Dukas.
Second: although Disney is known for fierce litigation to protect its trademarks, the character has been ripe for parody for years (e.g., this episode of The Simpsons that came prior to Disney buying Fox).
The first Shrek movie (2001) by DreamWorks Animation featured obvious parodies of the Disney princesses, but since the Grimms’ Fairy Tales sources of Cinderella et al are long in the public domain, Disney couldn’t object because the Shrek versions were closer to Grimms’ than Disney, although clearly recognizable.
Even without direct Mickey-esque parody, other cartoon rodents from Disney and elsewhere (like Jerry from Tom & Jerry or Alvin the chipmunk) abound.
Third: if there were narrative riches in the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse, then the Walt Disney Company would have already tapped them during the 95 years it controlled the character.
We’ve seen Disney do this with other characters. In Christopher Robin (2018, five years before the Milne books went into public domain), a grown-up Christopher (Ewan McGregor), now married with children, reunites with his childhood stuffed animal friends for a new, live action adventure. It was a lovely film, consistent with the Disney sensibility.
If the Pooh copyright had expired earlier (before the Copyright Term Extension Act that might have been as early as 2006: 50 years after Milne died), then we might have seen a movie like Christopher Robin made 12 years earlier and by another studio. Sure, the Lionsgate version might have been a little edgier (is that even a good thing?), but Disney is still thriving after 100 years because it is adept at storytelling.
While acknowledging that there’s no accounting for taste, so far my response to the different adaptations of the Steamboat Willie character is, “ho hum.” Sure, it’s early days, and it’s fun to make Willie say things that criticize Disney’s corporate practices, to put Willie and his girlfriend in bed together, or to use Willie in horror—the most distant genre from the Disney sensibility. But it didn’t make me think, “oh… nice.” I don’t think it’s as big a deal that Steamboat Willie is now in the public domain as the media coverage suggests.
Since Disney has controlled Pooh since 1961, the studio has already extracted the obvious narrative value of the characters, leaving only the counterintuitive or non-obvious value, hence horror movies with Disney characters now that Willie is in the public domain.
In other words, nothing compelling will happen with Steamboat Willie anytime soon. I suspect that it will take an artist working with an entirely new technology looking for an old story to make a new point before we see something exciting. That might look like a Generative AI-driven immersive mixed reality entertainment where a player becomes Willie, using haptics to play virtual instruments. This would be a technical achievement like the original cartoon with sound from 1928.
Steamboat Willie entering the public domain after 95 years isn’t a victory for the public domain: it’s too little, too late. As I wrote this, I found myself thinking of a verse from the Sting song “All This Time”:
Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth.
Better to be poor than be a fat man in the eye of the needle.
As these words were spoken, I swear I hear the old man laughing:
What good is a used up world, and how could it be worth having?
Only in this case the question is, what good is a used-up mouse, and how could it be worth adapting?
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
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January 10, 2024