In 2006, Disney made a deal with NBC Universal for the rights to the original 26 1927-1928 Disney-era cartoons of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. There are many details regarding the “trade” of Oswald and former ABC sports commenter Al Michaels. Disney CEO Bob Iger made it a point to return Oswald back to the Disney family in memory of legendary animator Walt Disney.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was the second character that Walt and his animating partners ever created, and Walt was devastated when he couldn’t make any more Oswald cartoons. Over 40 years have passed since Walt’s death, but now new audiences can enjoy the famous Oswald cartoons (unfortunately only 13 of 26 have survived) in remastered video, played to all new score compositions by Robert Israel on this two-disc DVD from the Walt Disney Treasures series.
It’s interesting watching silent era cartoons and films because they’re so different from ones of the sound era and even color era. And they have to be since there was no dialogue or music.
All of the images were in black and white, so you couldn’t be distracted by color. The entertainment had to be in the action, so there could never be any moment of inaction or non-movement. The entertainment also had to be in the story, which had to be interesting enough to forgive the simple animation. But let’s not forget, movie pictures were a huge deal in 1927 so watching a rabbit doing mischievous things was pretty mesmerizing.
In order to hold the audience’s attention, the animators had to constantly invent new gags for the characters to use; silly ones like in “The Ocean Hop” where Oswald is in need of another balloon so he grabs the balloon used to record his thoughts with or in “The Mechanical Cow” where Oswald grabs the cow’s neck to use as a pipe to redirect the many bullets aimed at him or in “Oh Teacher” where Oswald only hears cries of help after the written word “help” kicks him in the butt and directs him where to go.
These early Oswald cartoons are both visually simple and visually complex. They may seem barren at times, but the effects that the animators were able to achieve in 1927 are unbelievable. The water rapids in “Tall Timber” are hypnotizing; the pre-Fantasia shadow work in “Oh What A Knight” is surreal; the perspective angles in “Rival Romeos” are way ahead of their time. But most of all the liveliness of Oswald and the other characters are enchanting because what Walt especially wanted was to show that there were personalities on the screen, and not just characters. Oswald really did serve as a precursor for Mickey Mouse and many other famous cartoon characters.
Included on the DVD is the feature-length documentary The Hand Behind The Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story about the often overlooked contributor (some would say the real brains) behind the most famous mouse in the world. Narrated by Kelsey Grammer, this documentary about Ub is a sort of love letter from his granddaughter Leslie Iwerks.
Some biographical documentaries by family members tend to be overly emotional and thick with sensitivity, but Leslie’s documentary is firm and straight-forward. There is heavy emphasis on Ub’s talent and drive toward originality that it seems almost criminal that most people know Walt Disney’s name but not Ub’s. One interesting thing to note is the relationship between the two. Other than the unfortunate incident with their New York distributor, there wasn’t any real animosity between them until business took precedent over artistic integrity.
The minute Ub was able to have complete artistic control was when animation would never be the same because he would always be experimenting with new techniques and new styles. The documentary’s strength is in its use of Ub’s cartoons to show the progression and evolution of his artistry and to give context to his true influence on not just animation, but to film as well.
Did you know that Ub was responsible for the special effects in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds or that just one of his inventions was the anamorphic camera to show Sleeping Beauty in widescreen? Ub was a pioneer of tour de force animation, and really pushed toward making two-dimensional animation believable.
Also included are a few Ub cartoons both pre- and post-Oswald, including a few Alice cartoons and the famous Steamboat Willie.
Oswald The Lucky Rabbit was a pioneer character in animation history, and at last he can be shown to modern audiences. Disney did an outstanding job mixing new bonus material along with the historical cartoons. Leslie Iwerks’ documentary about her grandfather is a very fine movie, which does a fine job relating the work that Ub and Walt did with their cartoons to current events of the world like the Great Depression and World War II. Cartoons, like all art, provide an escape from the world’s harsh realities but also should remind of a world that created art in the first place.