Sunday, October 7, 2007

Steamboat Willie - November 18, 1928

Steamboat Willie has long been known as the quintissential Mickey cartoon, and for very good reason. It was this toon which caught the interest of audiences all over America and sent the lovable mouse on his journey to mega-stardom.

The film is also a historical work of art for its use of sound. 1927's The Jazz Singer was the first film ever to use a soundtrack, yet the process was still seen as a novelty. Truth be told, Steamboat Willie was not the first cartoon to have sound; in fact popular animator Max Fleischer (creator of Popeye and Betty Boop) experimented with sound effects in seven of his films before 1928. These cartoons were mostly silent except for a few sounds placed here and there. Needless to say, they were not well-received.

It wasn't until 1928 that Walt Disney decided to try creating a cartoon with a synchronized soundtrack throughout the entire film, a first of its kind. What came out of this idea was Steamboat Willie.

Ah yes, the iconic black and white image of Mickey Mouse as captain. So much of Mickey's personality is shown is just this opening scene. Here we have a lovable character that is very relatable. His design has changed from his appearance in Plane Crazy. Besides gaining shoes (yet still gloveless), Mickey's eyes have turned to oval buttons.

Deciding to change Mickey's eyes to pupil-less buttons was an interesting choice animator Ub Iwerks made. From listening to animators like South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker and The Simpsons' Matt Groening, one of the most important features of an animated character is its eyes. Notice how Homer, Marge, Cartman, and Stan all have very large round eyes. This helps the character to express much more emotionally, which is a characteristic that became troublesome for Mickey in later years; in fact, it is the reason why he eventually regains his pupils for 1940's Fantasia. While this early Mickey can certainly evoke happiness, sadness, and other simple emotions, it must have been a challenge for the Disney animators to create a confused, worried, or thinking look.

Steamboat Willie also sees the first appearance of Mickey and Pete together onscreen. Though this toon is Pete's first appearance in a Mickey Mouse film, the character had previously been introduced in the Alice Comedies of the 1920s. In this toon Pete is the captain of the steamboat and curiously has no interest in Minnie at all. His villainous role further cements Mickey as the character worth rooting for and the true star of the film.

Minnie is introduced as a maiden trying to catch the boat before it leaves the dock. Here we see a revised design of the character. She gained her shoes as Mickey did in The Gallopin' Gaucho, but for this toon she is given her trademark flowered hat.

The last character of importance seen in this toon is the parrot. While he never becomes a star in his own right, he does appear in several other Mickey shorts down the road.

Steamboat Willie is another Mickey cartoon which isn't up to Disney's present, family-friendly standards, though it's important to note that it was perfectly fine in 1928. While it is void of any racial stereotypes, it does have a scene featuring tabacco chewing.

Minnie and especially Mickey are also showcased in a rascally light. Whether it be cranking on a goat's tail...

...defiling an innocent cat....

....torturing a nearby goose...

...using a cow's teeth as a xylophone...

...or terrorizing both a group of piglets and their mother, Mickey was certainly a devilish character.

Steamboat Willie remains one of the most important cartoons in animation history today. It was voted #13 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time and was even selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It's not the greatest Mickey cartoon ever made, but it is very entertaining.


The GagaMan(n) said...
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Anonymous said...

I loved your post about steamboat willie I think the images were great, and it helped me with my homework