When talking about Steamboat Willie it’s almost more important to talk about what it’s not than what it is, as so many myths have sprung up about these seven minutes of animation. So, for the record Steamboat Willie is not:
The first Mickey Mouse cartoon.
The first Walt Disney cartoon.
The first cartoon to feature sound.
Willie’s real claim to fame is a little less sexy. It’s the first cartoon to use fully integrated sound and visuals, where the sound and pictures were recorded on the same film. There were other cartoons that used sound and music before this, but that basically involved playing the movie and the music on two separate tracks and hoping that they’d keep in sync like Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon. It doesn’t sound like it should make a huge difference but it really does. Take a look at Inkwell’s My Old Kentucky Home from 1926.
Wow, second sentence. You are so out of date in so many different ways that its almost impressive.
Now take a look at Steamboat Willie.
Synchronisation completely changes how you experience the cartoon. When you’re watching My Old Kentucky Home your brain thinks “I’m watching the dog move his mouth while a recording plays.” When you watchSteamboat Willie your brain thinks “The mouse is whistling.” With this marriage of sound and image all the elements are finally in place. This film, rough, scratchy and monochrome though it may be, is nonetheless the first modern cartoon.
Steamboat Willie was a sensation when it was released, making household names of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. And of course it also made a star out of Ub Iwerks who actually animated the damn thing…
Sorry Ub. To quote another Disney character, “Life’s not fair, is it?”
But, aside from its monumental historical and technical influence is Steamboat Willie any…y’know…good? Well, it’s probably not the best work of any of the people involved. And it certainly doesn’t fill me with the wonder of Winsor McCay’s shorts of almost twenty years prior. But it’s not without its charms. If Disney’s new series of Mickey Mouse shorts have taught me anything it’s just how deceptively versatile and charming the original Mickey Mouse design is. And there are some scenes, like Minnie running alongside the boat, that are actually quite technically challenging and impressive. But we will never really be able to understand the impact this short had on its original audience. We’ve spent our entire lives so immersed in sound and images that we’ve lost that innocence.
Our minds literally cannot conceive of how jaw-droppingthis little short about a mouse goofing off on a boat must have been.
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