This week, the Disney corporation must be delighted. Despite the company’s several attempts to prevent this news, Mickey Mouse – who debuted in 1928’s “Steamboat Willie” alongside Minnie Mouse – is now in the public domain. No doubt, production companies and artists were waiting in the wings for Mickey to join the public domain party, with a floodgate of adaptations ready to be told without the Bob Iger-led company.
To kick off the fun, get ready for Screamboat Willie, people.
The horror-comedy adaptation comes from filmmaker Steven LaMorte. The story will follow a “mischievous” and “monstrous” mouse with a “taste for tourists.” The critter will devour passengers and crew members aboard a boat off the coast of New York City, just as Walt Disney always dreamed.
LaMorte is ready to turn a figure of dreams into a star of nightmares. “Steamboat Willie has brought joy to generations, but beneath that cheerful exterior lies the potential for pure, unhinged terror,” LaMorte said in a statement. “It’s a project I’ve been dreaming of, and I can’t wait to unleash our twisted take on this beloved character to the world.” The director previously helmed The Mean One, a panned horror-comedy about The Grinch truly ruining Christmas.
LaMorte isn’t the only producer behind a Mickey Mouse horror movie.
A trailer has already been released for Mickey’s Mouse Trap. In the future Best Picture Winner, a killer dressed as Mickey Mouse takes out amusement park guests and employees one by one. The independent pic hails from director Jamie Bailey, who wisely took a tongue-in-cheek approach to the Mouse. “We just wanted to have fun with it all,” Bailey said in a statement. “I mean, it’s Steamboat Willie’s Mickey Mouse murdering people. It’s ridiculous. We ran with it and had fun doing it, and I think it shows.”
This isn’t the first time a beloved, kid-friendly character has joined the public domain, and horror filmmakers went wild. Two years ago, A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” became game, and Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey was unleashed upon the world. The film was more fun on paper than in execution, but it proved successful with $1.8 million earned at the domestic box office and a sequel in the works.
Really, Disney should consider itself lucky. They already got away with controversial extensions. Originally, the Walt Disney-founded company was set to lose the copyright on “Steamboat Willie” back in 1984. Crisis was averted. The last extension was due to the Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998, which many called The Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Disney, mainly then-CEO Michael Eisner, lobbied hard for the bill, not to mention donated a significant amount of cash to politicians. The bill was criticized for allowing the rich to continue to profit off what many believed belonged to the public.
Disney never messed around when it comes to Mickey Mouse. Remember, it is The House That Mouse Built. Even under the protection of parody laws, the company played hardball. In 1971, artist Dan O’Neill published an underground comic, “Air Pirates Funnies,” which showed the mouse smuggling drugs and having sex. Disney sued O’Neill for copyright infringement. After eight years in court, and to avoid jail time, the independent artist paid off the corporation and agreed to never draw Mickey Mouse again.
The company still has its ways to protect itself, or in other words, sue the hell out of people. The company retains copyright to more modern depictions of the Mouse. Considering the modernizations aren’t too far off from the original Steamboat Willie design, things could get sticky and murky.
Disney recently stated it will continue protecting Mickey Mouse. “Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences, and authentic products,” a Disney spokesperson shared with the Associated Press. “That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires. More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise.”
For a long time, Disney has been accused of having a little too much power and sway, whether in the state of Florida or Congress. As Florida Congressman Ron DeSantis played a game of chicken in the press with Disney CEO Bob Iger, Republican lawmakers vocally opposed extending protection for Steamboat Willie.
The Mouse is now free to play. Independent artists and thinkers can have fun with the character, not just a company making comic-book movies, sequels, and remakes of remakes. Whether the forthcoming horror spins on the Mouse are awful or not, it’s simply good news the character is no longer restricted by the creative restraints of Disney and is where he’s belonged since the ‘80s, the public domain.