Disney's 'Steamboat Willie' Sails Into Horror Films After Entering Public Domain

The early Mickey Mouse cartoon has also been spun off into a video game and myriad memes

Photo: Walt Disney Animation Studios via YouTube

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Jan 3, 2024

In the wee hours of January 1, the earliest version of Disney's Mickey Mouse from 1928 short Steamboat Willie entered the public domain. While the House of Mouse still holds copyrights for the modern, more familiar versions of the character, the happy-go-lucky, hat-wearing steamship captain has quickly been steered into uncharted waters as the star of forthcoming horror films, a first-person shooter video game protagonist and, of course, meme fodder.

Reminiscent of how public domain Winnie the Pooh became a slasher star in 2022, the freed Steamboat Willie mouse has first found a role in forthcoming horror comedy Mickey's Mouse Trap. A synopsis for the film, directed by Jamie Bailey, points to a masked killer dressed as Mickey Mouse terrorizing a group of early 20-somethings inside an arcade. You can watch a trailer — complete with clips of the '20s cartoon — down below.

"We just wanted to have fun with it all," director Bailey said in a statement [via The Hollywood Reporter]. "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." THR notes that while the film does not yet have a release date, producers are aiming for a March arrival.

A second, presently untitled horror film from director Steven LaMorte will reportedly find the Steamboat Willie mouse in a more familiar setting, captaining a ferryboat and terrorizing its passengers. 

Variety reports that LaMorte — who previously helmed a 2022 Grinch horror parody titled The Mean One — will team with Terrifier 2 producers Steven Della Salla and Michael Leavy on the project, alongside returning Mean One producers Amy Schumacher and Martine Melloul.

"Steamboat Willie has brought joy to generations, but beneath that cheerful exterior lies a potential for pure, unhinged terror," LaMorte said in a press release [via Variety]. "It's a project I've been dreaming of, and I can't wait to unleash this twisted take on this beloved character to the world."

Others out there, like video game developer Herosoft, clearly had this date circled on the calendar. Their game Inverse Ninjas vs. The Public Domain, in which players "fight off increasingly powerful ninjas as some of the most iconic characters of all time," now features the Steamboat Willie mouse as a playable character (alongside other fictional faves like Winnie and Sherlock Holmes), ready to vanquish his enemies with a harpoon gun. 
Naturally, you're bound to spot the Steamboat Willie mouse in all manner of memes. In cribbing embed codes for this piece, I scrolled past "Steampunk Willie" and another drawing with the steamboat captain honouring his working-class roots as a labour leader. Conversely, I also saw him at the helm of 2023's doomed Titanic submersible and planes cruising toward the World Trade Center. It's already shaping up to be quite the year online.

Compared to the Mickeys of modernity, the 1928 Steamboat Willie version of the character is black-and-white, does not speak and lacks the pupils his later counterparts would be drawn with.

A Disney spokesperson shared [via Deadline], "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. We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright, and we will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters."

Rewatch Disney's Steamboat Willie from 1928 below before the mouse pops up where you least expect him to. Other notable characters to have their original iterations enter the public domain in 2024 include A.A. Milne's Tigger and J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

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