Only a few weeks since the set was announced in the second round of LEGO Ideas reviews from 2018, 21317 Steamboat Willie will be available to buy from April 1st. The final set design is very different from the Ideas project which inspired it, and, with all respect to the original model, the improvements are significant. Mickey’s paddle steamer is much larger and more detailed than the original microscale design.
The box and its contents
The box is a thing of beauty — a chunky, predominantly white carton, with some classy gold foiling on the Mickey Mouse and LEGO Ideas logo elements. It’s surprisingly heavy, giving some inkling of the scale of the model you’re about to put together.
The rear of the box shows some of the paddle steamer’s details, and the “play feature” of turning paddles and the moving funnels which mimic the huffing-and-puffing of the boat’s smokestacks in the original cartoon.
When you open the box, you’re in for a treat. As the heft suggested, the packaging is stuffed to the brim with bricks, and with Bag 1 sitting on the top, I received a pleasant surprise about the types of bricks the set contains. The black-and-white nature of the cartoon inspiration, and the images on the box, had me expecting nothing but black, white, and grey. Bag 1 is anything but — packed full of the brightly-coloured bricks which make up the internal structure and mechanisms.
The instruction booklet
As well as the 179 instructions steps, the 175-page booklet also includes a bit of background on the significance of Walt Disney’s 1928 cartoon — the first to feature a synchronised soundtrack, and the first appearance of everyone’s favourite mouse. There’s also a two-page feature interviewing Mate Szabo, the fan designer of the LEGO Ideas project, and the LEGO designers involved in creating the set itself.
The construction begins with the creation of a robust Technic frame which holds the mechanism for the moving elements. It’s a great example of how LEGO designers will use lots of bright colours for internal structure in sets, making it easier for kids to orientate the model as they build, reducing the risk of misplaced bricks.
The frame gradually expands out and up, adding in the paddle axles, and a simple rocker mechanism for the funnels. There’s one particularly cool building technique employed here — introducing ball-and-socket joints to allow for the secure connection of the inverted bow and stern hull sections.
The brick-built hull, constructed from slopes and curved elements, and the neat inverted sections, is a genuine pleasure to put together. From an initial glance at the box art, I’d expected the set would feature large pre-fab hull parts. In reality, it’s mostly constructed from smaller parts, and it’s a much more interesting phase of the build than I’d thought it would be.
The bow and stern areas receive some nice attention to detail from the designers with deliberate misalignment of different sized white tiles creating the impression of a smooth planked deck…
The boat’s cabin is next, built up from stacked bricks, with windows and doorways, and bracket parts awaiting the addition of more tiles later.
By the time the cabin’s lower level is complete, the stubs of the smokestacks are in place and it’s starting to come together.
There’s a break in boat construction at this point — it’s time to put the paddles together. This is a repetitive job, needing sixteen identical “fins” made out of 5 smaller parts each. It wasn’t my favourite section of the overall build, but it doesn’t take too long and the end results look pretty good.
More tiling completes the upper deck of the cabin and then construction begins on the wheelhouse itself. Once again I was pleasantly surprised by this set when I realised the wheelhouse section was going to be big enough to fit Mickey standing at the wheel. Especially with his little hat on top, I’d assumed Disney’s most famous character would be too tall to fit within. Sometimes it’s nice to be mistaken.
The roof of the wheelhouse has a lovely little design feature — three cute pipes which break up the expanse of white, and add to the steamship character of the vessel.
The final stage of construction is of the rear derrick. It’s a simple yet effective design, using Technic pins and hinge parts to create a frame for the hook and string.
The black and white versions of Mickey and Minnie are excellent. The danger of the retro-styling was that black, white, and grey would prove an uninspiring colour combination for such an iconic and “colourful” pair of characters. However, the clever use of silver instead of light grey gives the pair some visual pop amidst the greyscale…
Minnie’s guitar is a nice piece, and the printed music score is a lovely touch. However, having tried to actually play the notes printed on the score, sadly it doesn’t appear to be the famous Turkey In The Straw tune. It’s an odd choice, to go to the trouble of printing the tile but not print the right notes, though the design of the music does look like it might come directly from what was drawn in the cartoon as a goat eats the sheet music. (Full Disclosure: my musical abilities are practically non-existent, so if I’m wrong about this then I can only apologise to the designers!)
Alongside the set’s Mickey-ears display stand, the minifigures will look great as an exhibit piece — perfect for any Disney fan…
New and interesting parts
There are some new parts, printed parts, and new part/colour combos in the set. (Or if they’re not that new, they’re rare enough that I don’t have many of them!) Here are a few of the ones which struck me as most interesting…
Overall impressions of the set
The finished model is bigger than you might expect, especially if you’d seen the microscale design of the original Ideas project. The turning paddles and moving smokestacks are good fun, and if you’re a Disney fan then you’ll appreciate how closely the model fits with the classic cartoon source material, and you’re sure to want to display it.
Having said that, as a display piece there are a couple of minor design choices which let the set down a little. Despite the smooth planked deck look, there’s a couple of ugly studded sections left on show, particularly at the tip of the bow and the stern. I’m not “anti-stud” when it comes to LEGO models, particularly official sets, but here it’s a mix of regular and open-ended studs left exposed. It makes the model feel a little unfinished — something that could easily have been sorted with just a few more white tiles or wedge plates.
I’m also worried about all those white parts. As I put the model together I couldn’t help but notice the subtle variations in colour amongst the white pieces. If brand new white parts already look a little different in shade, I dread to think what the boat will look like once it has sat out on display for a few years. White LEGO parts are notoriously prone to yellowing — this is a vessel which might not age too gracefully.
Nevertheless, the set is a great tribute to a landmark moment in cinema and popular culture. It’s a smart design with a striking monochromatic colour scheme — almost unique for a LEGO model. The build process is fun and includes some neat techniques, and the minifigures are brilliant. It’s simple really — if you’re a Disney fan, you have to get this, but if you’re not, then you don’t.
The LEGO Group sent The Brothers Brick a copy of this set for review. Providing TBB with products for review guarantees neither coverage nor positive reviews.