Next year marks the 80th anniversary of the debut of Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie
- thought to be the first cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse, who is arguably the best-known brand in the world. Steamboat Willie
- along with Disneyland, the forward-looking theme park inaugurated in 1955 - are emblematic of the trajectory and future of the empire that Disney built. As I returned to Disneyland earlier this year for the first time in 17 years to celebrate my son's fourth birthday, I had occasion to reflect on both the park and the cartoon, which screens on a constant loop in the Main Street Cinema.
First, both symbolize Disney's future-oriented approach - and its challenges. Steamboat Willie
, one of the earliest animations to feature sound, ushered in the era of popular cartoons and branded characters. It foreshadowed decades of marketing and strategy carefully calibrated to consumer tastes. Steamboat Willie
itself is a decidedly politically incorrect film, depicting frightening violence (Mickey brandishes a sharp knife and is forcefully tossed around by his nemesis, Captain Pete), cruelty to animals (Mickey force-feeds a cow, hits a parrot with a potato, and yanks the tails of numerous beasts), and sexual harassment (Mickey deploys a hook to peek under Minnie's skirt). Today's MPAA would probably award it a PG-13 rating.
But such were the demands of the market at the time when the animation genre was still experimental and not explicitly directed at children. Once Disney figured out that the road to parents' wallets ran through their children's hearts and minds, he softened and shaped his characters appropriately.