A Floridian Reviews 'Steamboat Willie'


Great news for any creatives itching to appropriate a wholly specific, old-timey version of Mickey Mouse without legal woes. "Steamboat Willie," a short film featuring an early incarnation of Disney's scampering icon, has entered the United States public domain along with other expired copyrights (hunker down, fans of "Lady Chatterley's Lover").

This full-circle moment makes way for Mickey Mouse horror projects and unsettling artificial intelligence art that will send up the empire built, in large part, on public domain fairy tales. From where I sit in Florida, Mickey permeates corners of life from pop culture to politics, with Disney annual passholder stickers on every third SUV and mouse ears infiltrating school board protests.

Yet it occurred to me that I'd never seen the rascally rodent's genesis. It was time to fire up Disney+ to watch the eight-minute cartoon directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, one of the first with sound, and, as one historian said, "emotional storytelling." I'll be the unreliable judge of that.

The black-and-white short from 1928 opens with Mickey steering a steamboat in a reckless manner that may lead to mass casualty. He's wearing his signature pants with buttons, big shoes and a cute captain's hat. The breezy energy is elite, but it cannot last. Pete, a burly cat antagonist, bursts aboard and assaults Mickey, who is clearly not licensed to drive. Pete is wearing Mickey's same hat; who wore it better?

Mickey blows raspberries and Pete kicks him. Remember when 1990s parents used to blame youth problems on violent video games? Anyway, Pete tosses Mickey down a set of stairs to be roundly emasculated by a bullying parrot. Mickey throws a bucket of water on the bird and attempts to drown him. I have counted at least three charges of aggravated battery.

Pete celebrates by eating ... something? Gross, it's a big brick of chewing tobacco. He spits the chew goo into open waters, but it flies back and hits him in the face. Pete represents the police state.


We arrive at a dock full of farm animals. A cow spots the boat and is all, "Here comes drama." Mickey Mouse hops off, and he is TINY! He was actually mouse-sized? I only picture Mickey Mouse as a costumed adult being rammed in the solar plexus by a sticky child in Lake Buena Vista.

The cow squirts Mickey with milk, and I am rooting for the cow. Things are getting weird when Minnie shows up, hustling for the boat. She has her ukulele and is positively trucking in high heels. She's a runner, she's a track star. The boat leaves without her because it is managed by men. Mickey decides to, ugh, lift her skirt with a crane and pull her onto the boat by the bloomers.

Brief pause as I allow the feminism to leave my body so I can continue.

Mickey and Minnie bond romantically by using a goat as a Victrola to play music. Mickey drums pans, barrels and his own head. This party is lit; where is my invitation?


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