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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

And so it begins, with "Steamboat Willie"...

(Originally published on 1/4/22)


Steamboat Willie (plus 12 Mickey Mouse cartoons, from “Celebrating Mickey”)

Run time (total): 100 min

Release Date (for SW): November 18, 1928

Where/when I first saw it: Unsure.

How I watched it today: Blu-ray, Sunday afternoon.

While there is some debate over “Steamboat Willie”’s merits as being the first animated movie with sync sound, it nevertheless represents the first building block on what would eventually become an ever-growing empire. Thus begins my year-long binge of the Disney full-length feature* catalog… a scrappy, scratchy, nonsensical, black-and-white short about a mischievous mouse with a sadistic streak that he uses to charm a female companion (Minnie) aboard a steamship full of animals, all of whom get turned into musical instruments, either by being squeezed like accordions or stretched and/or skinned.

And it is, well, charming. The duck sure seems to enjoy watching it and what’s good enough for a cute little duck is good enough for me. “Steamboat Willie” is a cavalcade of invention and silliness with a breakneck pace that it’s no wonder audiences flocked to it and praised it as a cinematic marvel. When we watch it today, of course, we laugh and gasp at how violent it seems, but it’s merely a kind of blueprint of what’s to come from Tex Avery, Max Fleischer and the team at Warner Bros.

And, by looking at the cartoons also featured on the “Celebrating Mickey” collection, that violent streak would certainly continue with cute little Mickey and company, with merriment and music being the end result. Hey, whatever gets you through the day.

It’s easy to enjoy, but looking at it, knowing what would come from it (the acorn that grows the great oak), it’s a seemingly innocuous concoction that now carries the weight of world-changing history and cultural significance. How can we assess it with a mere star rating or measure its merits as a short cartoon and nothing more? It’s a technical and comic wonder of its time that doesn’t look like much today, but if you take into account the limitations of the time and how much painstaking work went into its creation (without any kind of distributor or money coming in, by the way), it only adds to one’s appreciation of it. This is a historical milestone more than a movie or cartoon. Nobody knew it at the time, but time has a funny way of adding elements of mythology and legend to what could have just been an undiscovered lark. In essence, “Steamboat Willie” is a just a mouse on a boat making music. Not anymore.

(*--I realize it's not a feature, but it's still a logical place to start and that "Celebrating Mickey" blu-ray clocks in at 100 minutes, over half of which is pre-"Snow White" material)


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