Friday, May 22, 2009

Finally! Steamboat Willie

Finally, after nearly five months of working on it, we have come to the first “official” Mickey Mouse cartoon – Steamboat Willie. Sure, others were animated first, but the public got their first glimpse at the future icon in Steamboat Willie. So, we’ve all seen it a few times before, I’m sure, but how does it stack up after having viewed all that came before?

Not too bad, but not too good would be my first assessment. Steamboat Willie, oddly enough, is much more derivative than the first two Mickeys, borrowing several gags from the Oswalds and even the Alice Comedies. The animation is good, although not as inventive as some of the sights we saw in Plane Crazy or in some of the Oswald shorts.

So, is it the sound that made Steamboat Willie so popular? It certainly doesn’t hurt. The sound effects are key to the timing and comedy of the film, although the character’s voices are pretty terrible. The squeaks and grunts are frankly annoying, and probably would have been better served with musical cues instead.

It’s not the story, either. This is definitely the weakest story so far in the Mickey shorts, with Mickey serving as a first mate on a steamboat, captained by Pete, and all of the action stems from there. He picks up Minnie, a musical interlude takes up most of the short, and Pete finally implores him to get back to work towards the end.

No, the thing that makes Steamboat Willie work is the real every man sense the viewer gets from Mickey in this film. You’ll recall, that’s at odds with the intent that Ub Iwerks had for the new character. Ub wanted Mickey to be a dashing hero, as seen in The Gallopin’ Gaucho. But the Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie is not that. In fact, he’s much like Oswald, trying to enjoy himself but being harassed by Pete as he does.

In this short, though, Mickey shows his human side, trying to please Minnie after a goat eats her music, by cranking its tail and turning the goat into a record player. Sure, it’s a gag straight out of Rival Romeos, the Oswald short, but it gives a little glimpse into Mickey’s personality.

I’ve gathered from comments here and in other places that the musical interludes would become a crutch in the early Mickey films, and it’s easy to see how that would happen. In this film, Mickey turns all the animals into instruments, including swinging a cat around by its tail and picking up a pig and playing its teats like an accordion. Both of these are scenes that had been cut from the film, but they are intact on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD.

Strangely enough, I feel like this is the weakest of the first three Mickey films. Is it entertaining? Absolutely. But the animation, storytelling and characters are not as strong. However, Steamboat Willie will always hold a warm place in my heart as the first Mickey film.

It still holds sway, though, over young kids. My son watched it with me a few days ago, and has been asking me to see it again every day since. My daughter loves it as well. They both saw some of the Oswalds and the other two Mickey films reviewed so far, but they keep coming back to Steamboat Willie. Maybe this was the beginning of the Disney magic we all keep hearing about.


  1. I love this cartoon! Steamboat Willie really is something new. The last few generations have grown up with sound films and cartoons. We're used to moving images that talk, play music and make sounds, but in 1928 this was really innovative.

    I also think it's a really good idea for Disney's cartoon with sound. Mickey's on a boat that's carrying livestock which he uses to play music and entertain Minnie. It's unusual, but simple enough to be perfect for a short. Absolutely everything moves to the beat, the music is really catchy and comes from unexpected places. It's silly at the same time as being clever and funny. I even enjoy those funny squeaks and grunts! Compare this cartoon with the early Krazy Kat sound cartoons on David's blog or "Dinner Time" (the Paul Terry sound cartoon that beat Disney to it – it can be found on

    There is perhaps an over-reliance on music in early Disney cartoons rather than on action or adventure. It could be seen as a crutch or maybe it was just giving the public what it wanted. I still find there to be something absolutely irresistible about the match of music synchronised with animated antics. I just love it! (what is a shame is when Mickey was ready for real adventures again in the mid-30's, they stop all too soon).

    Even though I hate the expression, I think it is the use of music that helped create that special quality, that "Disney Magic", that people find, but can't quite define. The 'scientific formula' seems to have something to do with the blend of music and action combined with personalities.

    One very cool thing about this important cartoon is that it's the start of Carl Stalling's career as a composer for animated cartoons. Of course he wrote some of the most iconic scores in cartoon history and I would include this one.

    –Mac (who'll be back in a week!)

  2. So much has been written about "Steamboat Willie" that it's tough to come up with anything new. The picture of Mickey at the wheel of the steamboat has become an iconic legend in Disney history.

    But the question remains ... would Mickey have been as popular without sound? I believe so, but it would have taken a much longer time. Remember, after Alice folded her tents and Oswald was taken away from him, Mickey Mouse was the first character that Disney could truly say was his own. I think he would have been loathe to give up on him without an extended fight.

    On he other hand, would sound have survived without Mickey? It might have, but without the ebulence and accesibility of Mickey's character it might have just been a passing novelty for cartoons. But the fact that the Disney artists were able to create so convincingly the illusion that the characters on the screen were actually making the sounds, married with the seductive personality of Mickey Mouse proved to be the marriage that catapulted him, and Disney, to fame.

  3. I realised I made a mistake in my previous comment. Wilfred Jackson did the music for this one NOT Carl Stalling. Oops!

    – Mac

  4. Are you sure the public got their first glimpse of Mickey in Steamboat Willie? The Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Shorts' individual pages on the two gives Plane Crazy an earlier release date then Steamboat Willie (just click on the individual "Plane Crazy" and "Steamboat Willie" links on the page


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