Disney may be celebrating its centennial, but Steamboat Willie (1928), one of its iconic animated shorts, turns 95 this year. This also marks 95 years since the end of the silent cartoon era and a pivotal point in Disney’s rise as the animation giant it is today.
The Silent Era
The Silent Era of Animation went from the 1900s to the late 1920s. Silent Era cartoons were very similar to the silent films of Charlie Chaplin. At the time, muted videos with subtitle cards between frames let the audience know what was said. Sometimes, the sound played in the background, but these tracks didn’t always synchronize with the cartoons.
Enter Steamboat Willie. This seven-minute animated short was a testament to the black-and-white cartoons of the time—the short starts with Mickey piloting a steamboat, whistling a tune. Pete enters, annoyed with Mickey, and orders him off the bridge. Not pleased, Mickey blows a raspberry at the captain, prompting Pete to try to kick Mickey. However, Mickey maneuvers out of the way, and Pete kicks himself. Later on, they meet Minnie. After a gaggle of shenanigans that includes turning a goat into a phonograph, Pete orders Mickey to peel potatoes. A parrot mocks him in the room, and Mickey resorts to throwing a potato at the bird, knocking it overboard as he laughs.
The animation itself was standard for the time. However, this was one of the first cartoons with synchronized sound, changing the trajectory of the film and animation industries. During this time, Felix the Cat was the most popular cartoon character. To this day, the iconic cat is held in high regard as a classic cartoon character. However, this loveable cat was one of the first casualties in Disney’s rise to the top.
Steamboat Willie Today
Steamboat Willie was a smashing success upon its release. Even today, it remains well-referenced in pop culture. The most popular revisit to this short was in the game Kingdom Hearts II (2005). Inside the Disney Castle, players can enter a level dedicated to the short. In it, the player’s appearance changes to match the art style of the short. While the level is short, it allowed Disney to reference its early days and introduce a new generation of people to the beloved short.
Sora, the game’s protagonist, is also a playable fighter in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and has an alternate skin based on the cartoon called Timeless River. Disney usually references the animated short. However, it has been referenced by The Simpsons, Pokemon, Animaniacs (2020), and Futurama.
The cartoon will enter the public domain on January 1, 2024, despite Disney’s best attempts at preventing this. Since Disney has Mickey Mouse trademarked, using the character’s likeness for any profit will most likely earn a lawsuit. Of course, that will not stop comedian John Oliver from using this iteration of Mickey to cause overall chaos on his show. We cannot wait to hear the lawsuit and arguments Disney will make against him for using Mickey’s likeness.