In public domain, early Mickey Mouse version will star in horror movies

Slashed free of Disney's copyright as of Monday, the iconic character from 'Steamboat Willie' is already the focus of two horror films

By AP

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Published: Wed 3 Jan 2024, 2:57 PM

Last updated: Wed 3 Jan 2024, 2:58 PM

The earliest iteration of Mickey Mouse is on a rampage, barely two days in the public domain.

Slashed free of Disney's copyright as of Monday, the iconic character from Steamboat Willie is already the focus of two horror films. On Monday, just hours after the 1928 short entered the public domain, a trailer for Mickey's Mouse Trap dropped on YouTube. Another yet-to-be-titled film was announced Tuesday.

Steamboat Willie featured early versions of both Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, it was the third cartoon featuring the duo they made but the first to be released. In it, a more menacing Mickey, bearing more resemblance to rat than mouse, captains a boat and makes musical instruments out of other animals.

It's perhaps fitting, then, that the first projects announced are seemingly low-budget and campy slasher movies — and not unprecedented. Winnie the Pooh — sans red shirt — entered the public domain in 2022; scarcely a year later, he was notching up a heavy body count in the microbudget Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.

In the trailer for Mickey's Mouse Trap, directed by Jamie Bailey, what appears to be a human in a comically small Mickey mask terrorizes a group of young people at an arcade.

“A place for fun. A place for friends. A place for hunting,” text flashed during the trailer reads. “The mouse is out.”

“We just wanted to have fun with it all. I mean it’s Steamboat Willie’s Mickey Mouse murdering people,” director Jamie Bailey said in a statement cited by trade publications. “It’s ridiculous. We ran with it and had fun doing it and I think it shows.”

No release date has been set.

The second movie is from director Steven LaMorte, who previously directed a horror parody of The Grinch, which is not in the public domain (the movie is thus called The Mean One).

“A late-night boat ride turns into a desperate fight for survival in New York City when a mischievous mouse becomes a monstrous reality,” is the logline for the untitled film, per a post on LaMorte's Instagram.

“Steamboat Willie has brought joy to generations, but beneath that cheerful exterior lies a potential for pure, unhinged terror,” LaMorte said in a release cited by the trades. The movie has yet to begin production.

With the expiration of the 95-year copyright, the public is allowed to use only the initial versions of Mickey and Minnie — not the more familiar character designs.

“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,” Disney said in a statement ahead of the characters entering the public domain.

LaMorte told Variety that the producers of his film are working with a legal team so as not to run afoul of Disney, and will call their raging rodent Steamboat Willie instead of Mickey Mouse.

“We are doing our due diligence to make sure there’s no question or confusion of what we’re up to,” he said.

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