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So It Begins: Steamboat Willie Enters The Public Domain

Here comes the inevitable “Scream-boat Willie” horror makeover

Disney’s favourite mascot has had one of his earliest incarnations hit the public domain – the wonderful whistler at the wheel, Steamboat Willie. Harkening back to 1928, this black and white animation was a massive step forward for animation for its synchronized sound – something we all take for granted today. But the heavy hand of Disney’s lawyers can’t hold everything forever, and now the diminutive little fellow has finally entered the public domain after a myriad of copyright extensions pushed it to be protected for nearly a century. And with this, comes clutching fingers that wish to use the round-eared rodent for their projects. These are, of course, all cheaply-produced horror properties.

Now the beauty of the public domain is that something iconic can be used in fresh and creative new ways. New perspectives and ideas help uplift the existing work and broaden its message to new audiences. As an example, the works of William Shakespeare are in the public domain, allowing us to enjoy amazing renditions of his signature works to create things like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or the Heath Ledger classic 10 Things I Hate About You (a modernisation of William Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew).

So, herein is my gripe. With the incredible flexibility of the public domain essentially distilling down to unlimited creativity and freedom, why do we always seem to end up in the sphere of goofy, undercooked horror titles?

I enjoy horror, and I particularly love goofy horror that does not take itself too seriously. I am not alone, considering that Blumhouse’s M3GAN did more than okay in 2022/23. Horror is a genre that is teeming with opportunities to remix, remake or outright lampoon ideas. Drowning something in gore is an accepted practice if it is done well – and horror fans love a cheeky reference or Easter egg.

My issue comes from the weird, rote way that horror is used as a vehicle to carry a limping idea across a finish line.

And so, we inevitably speak about Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.

January of 2022 brought with it a similar outcome to the above, with Winnie the Pooh entering that hallowed free-for-all public domain. So of course, a dark and gritty horror experience was announced. It was disturbing, it was interesting – it was Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.

At least, it was interesting and disturbing for the time it spent as a concept. As a trailer, it evoked feelings of creepiness and curiosity for those who grew up with the funny yellow bear’s stories. Above all else, it was novel – creepy redesigns of titular characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Piglet had a general sense of quality to them, and the slasher genre is so safe a foundation that they could build anything they wanted to tell a shocking, silly story about the hundred-acre wood. What might Tigger be like!? Can they somehow adapt A. A. Milne’s incredible childhood tale into a depraved and accurate retelling?

Nah. Instead of revelling in the mythos of Winnie the Pooh, it sidestepped it. It was not a celebration of Milne’s word, but a hollow puppet show wearing some squint-and-you-might-see-it inspiration. Shot over ten days, it was cheaply made and masterfully lazy. It somehow couldn’t even appeal to me – someone who usually will see the intention and joy in even the most blazing dumpster fires.

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But, it made money. Grossing $5.2 million worldwide against a $100,000 budget, it was enough to get a sequel greenlit – this time promising everyone that Tigger would be turning up to spill blood. And I can’t bring myself to give a shit.

So perhaps this answers the question of why newcomers to the public domain will be immediately doused in buckets of blood. The siren song of quick cash is hard to resist.

Why tell a unique or interesting story when you can instead lean on the trappings of a slasher film or mascot horror game and the heavy lifting of ‘character presence’ already done for you by someone else decades ago? It seems that people will flock, and as a result money will flow, from curiosity alone.

Now I am not saying that a public domain character can’t possibly achieve something noteworthy, more so that a trend has revealed itself and I don’t think it will quietly fade anytime soon. There are 5.2 million reasons why Blood and Honey is inspiring others, and while putting this piece together I can safely say that no less than THREE Steamboat Willie projects have already made themselves known, be they film or video game alike. I’ll abstain from any proper discussion of them as part of this rant – but just know that my brow is furrowed and I will be keeping tabs to see which one reveals itself to be a giant disappointment first.

I’ll be the first to say I was wrong if one of them turns out to be a secret banger.

Written By Ash Wayling

Known throughout the interwebs simply as M0D3Rn, Ash is bad at video games. An old guard gamer who suffers from being generally opinionated, it comes as no surprise that he is both brutally loyal and yet, fiercely whimsical about all things electronic. On occasion will make a youtube video that actually gets views. Follow him on YouTube @Bad at Video Games

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