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Mickey Mouse has been turned into a killer — but the real horror is lack of originality in pop culture

Mickey's-Mouse-Trap.JPG

A scene from the trailer for “Mickey’s Mouse Trap,” which has turned an early version of the Disney character into a masked killer.

Mickey Mouse is in the public domain and ready to kill.

Happy New Year! Let’s begin 2024 with — spins the wheel — copyright news. As the calendar flipped on Monday, “Steamboat Willie” sailed into the public domain. That is the 1928 animated short from Walt Disney that featured a crude version of Mickey.

Now any creator can use that Mickey (or Minnie). And less than 24 hours into 2024, it seems creators are leaning toward horror movies and violent video games.

It’s like turning cotton candy into a noose.

A trailer for “Mickey’s Mouse Trap” appeared on YouTube as you were nursing your New Year’s Eve hangover. Synopsis: “It’s Alex’s 21st Birthday, but she’s stuck at the amusement arcade on a late shift so her friends decide to surprise her, but a masked killer dressed as Mickey Mouse decides to play a game of his own with them which she must survive.”

Hundreds of once copyrighted works slipped into the public domain this week.

Duke University offered a roundup. The free-for-all of intellectual property includes fiction, theatre, film, compositions and sound recordings. So if you ever planned to turn D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” into a musical romp featuring tracks such as “Mack the Knife” and “When You’re Smiling,” this is your lucky year.

You can now play around with Tigger, the Joker and Peter Pan. Free idea: the three of them run an Airbnb in Cancun before starting a drug cartel after Peter misunderstands the colloquial meaning of “high.” Then everything goes sideways when they smuggle fentanyl aboard Agatha Christie’s “The Mystery of the Blue Train.”

The cultural point of public domain is to refresh, rebuild and reimagine, to take forgotten works from yesteryear and give them new life in the present. But since we are already up to our eyes and ears in remakes and reboots, some characters never faded away.

It will be strange to see what happens a decade from now when Superman, Batman and James Bond enter the public domain and the first impulse is turn them into their opposites. Will 007 manage an H&R Block? Will Aquaman end up a skinny mountain climber who can’t swim? Will Wonder Woman wear sensible pantsuits?

Yes, there is novelty in writing against type.

But does that mean every beloved children’s character is destined to become a psycho?

Winnie-the-Pooh entered public domain in 2022. Someone could have produced a sweet story about how Pooh Bear helped bring the Pfizer vaccine to Hundred Acre Wood. Or maybe he volunteered at a food bank? Sponsored endangered Red Pandas?

Instead, one of the first new works was “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.” Pooh no longer gets his head stuck in jars — he’s too busy bludgeoning other skulls with a sledgehammer. Piglet is more feral and bloodthirsty than Vladimir Putin. Poor Eeyore is eaten. Christopher Robin is brutalized. The once cuddly characters now hate humanity, though not as much as A.A. Milne would hate these characters.

No matter. A gory sequel arrives next month.

At the risk of sounding quaint and squishy, we should just leave children’s characters as they were originally dreamed up regardless of lapsed copyright. Sure, you could one day turn the Teletubbies into human traffickers who harvest organs. But why? Is there any future audience demand to see Barney the purple dinosaur lurch into a suburban killing spree, mutilating his victims while singing annoying songs?

The original Barney was already chilling.

It’s so unnecessary. The thing about slasher films is it really doesn’t matter who is doing the slashing. A Mickey Mouse or Winnie-the-Pooh mask doesn’t make the murder and mayhem any scarier. If you’re attacked in a dark alley, does it matter if the assailant looks like Donald Duck? Irony vanishes when the stabbing begins. I’m running for my life whether that butcher knife is clutched by Freddy Krueger or Fred Flintstone.

In the ’80s and ’90s, creators didn’t give a hoot about public domain because they wanted to be original and come up with their own characters and stories. I miss those days. You get a vibrant popular culture when people invent as opposed to reinvent.

I’m surprised there isn’t already a movie based on a talking Rubik’s Cube.

If they must, creators should take new playthings now in the public domain and work them into the membranes of real life that promise to be frightening throughout 2024.

Is there anything more terrifying than the MAGA cult? Get Mickey from “Steamboat Willie” to infiltrate the rallies and try to deprogram the zombies before there is a civil war south of the border. Turn Mickey loose on climate change, war, housing prices, the Leafs.

Can Mickey find a bungalow for under a mil? Can he play goalie?

Either one would be more interesting than hunting 20-somethings in an arcade.

Vinay Menon is the Star’s pop culture columnist based in Toronto. Email: vmenon@thestar.ca.

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