‘Steamboat Willie’ Mickey Mouse goes public, spawns horror films

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Who is the new horror star to hit the screen?


At least two Mickey Mouse-inspired horror films have been announced since 1928. “Steamboat Willie” – which features the first version of the iconic character – entered the public domain.

Disney's copyright ownership of the landmark short, which marked the on-screen debut of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, is officially expired Monday. Directed by Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks, the classic cartoon stars the chipper mascot as the whistling, naughty pilot of a steamboat floating down a river.

Now that the prototype of the most famous animated character of all time is up for grabs, independent filmmakers wasted no time in taking advantage of the opportunity.

“It doesn't surprise me that people were working on movies and maybe just waiting to announce them until the new year,” said Mark Lezama, an attorney with Knobbe Martens in Orange County who specializes in litigation. in matters of patents.

“He’s such a well-known character that we had to wait so long,” he added. “For some people, it’s a day that’s been a long time coming.”

Director and producer Steven LaMorte confirmed in a statement Tuesday that he will direct a horror-comedy adaptation of “Steamboat Willie,” about a “mischievous” and “monstrous” mouse with a “taste for tourists” who terrorizes locals. passengers and crew members. from a boat off the coast of New York.

LaMorte previously directed and produced “The Mean One,” a 2022 horror comedy based on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch.

“Steamboat Willie has brought joy to generations, but beneath that cheerful exterior lies the potential for pure, disjointed terror,” LaMorte said in a statement. “This is a project I’ve been dreaming about and I can’t wait to reveal our twisted version of this beloved character to the world.”

Earlier this week, a trailer for “Mickey's Mouse Trap” – an independent slasher film about a masked killer disguised as Mickey Mouse who stalks innocent amusement park guests and employees – has surfaced on YouTube. Directed by Jamie Bailey, “Mickey’s Mouse Trap” is set to open in March.

Naturally, Mickey's first foray into the public domain has raised questions about how creatives can use the character without facing legal repercussions.

First of all, Disney still owns copyrights to newer versions of Mickey Mouse. Additionally, Disney has trademark protections that ensure that companies other than Disney cannot use Mickey Mouse's image in a way that might suggest their products are made by the Burbank entertainment giant.

Lezama points out that the Mickey Mouse featured in “Steamboat Willie” has key differences from modern depictions of the character. For example, Mickey “Steamboat Willie” is depicted entirely in black and white and is missing the mouse's iconic white gloves. So, to be on the safe side, a filmmaker might avoid a gloved, colorized depiction of Mickey.

“The main thing is to make sure that you don't use Mickey in promotional materials in a way that might make it appear that the movie is from Disney,” Lezama added. “I don't think it should be too difficult, especially if Mickey is portrayed as a bloodthirsty sadist.”

Disney representatives did not respond to The Times' request for comment Tuesday.

Disney has long been fiercely protective of its intellectual property, exploiting its characters in films, television shows, toys, theme parks and cruise lines. In 1998, the studio giant pushed for the enactment of the Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the term of ownership to the life of the author plus 70 years, or 95 years after the publication of a rental work.

“Since Mickey Mouse's first appearance in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, people have associated the character with authentic Disney stories, experiences and products,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement to The Associated Press. “This will not change when the Steamboat Willie movie copyright expires.”

“More modern versions of Mickey will not be affected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright,” the statement continued, “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.”

The character's transformation from cuddly kid to murderous movie villain seems to be becoming something of a trend in pop culture.

Shortly after AA Milne's “Winnie-the-Pooh” entered the public domain in 2022, Altitude Film Distribution released “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” a low-budget slasher about silly old Bear and his pals seeking violent revenge on their old friend Christopher Robin in the Hundred Acre Wood. After the film grossed $1.8 million at the domestic box office, a sequel to “Blood and Honey” is expected to be released in February, according to the Hollywood journalist.

Coincidentally, the goofiest and bounciest member of Pooh's band, Tigger, just entered the public domain with the original Mickey and Minnie this year.

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