Director Steven LaMorte had long wanted to make a horror movie that was set on a boat. Being stranded in the water would only heighten the fear of running from a killer, he thought.
LaMorte announced Tuesday that he was producing that film, but the killer will be a character who typically brings smiles and laughs to children: Mickey Mouse.
His plans for the beloved cartoon rodent’s dark turn were unveiled just hours after Mickey Mouse’s iteration from “Steamboat Willie,” a 1928 animated short film, entered the public domain after its copyright expired at the start of the year. LaMorte is one of two directors to announce they are producing horror movies with Mickey Mouse as the villain.
Production will begin on LaMorte’s independent film in the spring in New York City. He told The Washington Post that he hopes the movie will reinvigorate adults’ love for Disney’s mascot.
“We still love these characters, but we’re looking for a more age-appropriate way to engage with them,” LaMorte said. “So it’s something kind of cool to … find a new way to breathe life into a character.”
LaMorte’s announcement came a day after Toronto-based director Jamie Bailey and actor Simon Phillips released a trailer for their own Mickey Mouse horror film, “Mickey’s Mouse Trap.” The trailer shows a group of friends socializing at an arcade before an actor dressed as Mickey appears holding a knife.
This isn’t the first time a cherished Disney character has starred in a horror movie. After entering the public domain in 2022, Winnie-the-Pooh was a villain in “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey,” which grossed about $5 million after its February release.
LaMorte, who hasn’t named his movie, said he first heard near the start of 2023 that Mickey Mouse’s “Steamboat Willie” design might enter the public domain. At the time, he was directing a horror and comedy movie about a character based on the Grinch called “The Mean One.”
He didn’t expect Mickey Mouse would actually become available. But as 2024 approached, LaMorte said he thought more about a movie featuring the typically friendly mouse.
As a child in the 1990s, LaMorte said he watched “Steamboat Willie” and other classic animated short films on VHS tapes. Growing up in Staten Island, LaMorte said he often rode boats and ferries to nearby Governors Island and to visit the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. That’s when he began to imagine how he would produce a horror film on the water.
LaMorte declined to say when he started working on his new movie, but he said by Jan. 1, a pile of written ideas were already stacked on his desk in Los Angeles. The Mickey Mouse in LaMorte’s movie, who will be named Steamboat Willie, can only appear similarly to the design from the 1928 short film, in which Mickey is entirely black-and-white and doesn’t wear a shirt or his now-signature white gloves.
LaMorte said he is working on a legal strategy to ensure his character doesn’t copy Mickey Mouse’s current designs. Producers for “Mickey’s Mouse Trap” included a disclaimer in their trailer’s description that states it is not a Disney film or production.
Disney did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night, but the company told The Post in a statement earlier this week that it will “safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey.”
“Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film ‘Steamboat Willie,’ people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences and authentic products,” the statement said. “That will not change when the copyright in the ‘Steamboat Willie’ film expires.”
LaMorte said he’s still working on his script, but he plans to release the movie by the end of the year. He said he hopes to leave viewers worldwide scared and laughing.
“What we’re looking forward to most is an opportunity to present something familiar that people hold dear in a new, fun and exciting way,” LaMorte said, “using some cutting-edge technology, as well as some classic filmmaking techniques, that are going to make this movie unlike anything else.”