Walt Disney Treasures presents a formerly lost treasure in The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald debuted on screen in 1927 and became the first animated star for Disney and his partner, animator Ub Iwerks. When Disney went to renegotiate a more beneficial distribution deal, producer Charles B. Mintz told him he had to take a budget cut instead. Mintz tired to pressure Disney by secretly signing most of his animators to new deals, and since the character belonged to Universal, Mintz let Disney know the studio could make Oswald shorts without him.
Disney refused to be bullied, so when his contract was up, he, along with Iwerks, who remained loyal to him, struck out to try his hand as an independent. Together, the first new cartoon the two men created featured Mickey Mouse. Other animators at Universal, including Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker, continued to create Oswald cartoons until 1943.
In 2006, the ABC network, which was then owned by the Walt Disney Company, had lost the broadcast rights to the NFL. The rights were picked up NBC/Universal. Sportcaster Al Michaels, who was under contract to another Disney property, the sports cable channel ESPN, was interested in following the NFL to NBC, so The Disney Co. facilitated a trade of assets, which included a transfer of ownership of the character and the 26 Oswald cartoons produced by Disney.
Oswald is reminiscent of Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat. He has a series of wild, surreal adventures that can turn in any direction for a gag. When Oswald tries to fly in “The Ocean Hop,” he ties a regular balloon to the back end of a dachshund and for the front he uses a word balloon and attaches it with a question mark. In “Oh What A Knight,” he steps away from a swordfight, allowing his shadow to continue the battle, while he sneaks off to get a kiss from the princess.
Iwerks and the other animators made great use of perspective and points-of-view to create visually interesting cartoons. In “Trolley Troubles,” the trolley has to constantly change shape as it travels across the varying widths of track. The viewer is placed at the front of the trolley as it heads into a darkened tunnel and everything goes black and then white as the lighted exterior quickly expands in the frame.
Unfortunately, only 13 of the 26 cartoons have so far been found in a worldwide search and they are in various stages of degradation. New scores have been created and performed by Robert Israel. Six of the cartoons have commentary tracks: two by animator Mark Kausler, two by historian Jerry Beck and then they each share duties with Leonard Maltin. Some of the cartoons were recut at a later date by Lantz and are only available in this form. “Bright Lights” in particular is obviously out of order, which begs the question what Lantz’ reasoning was behind these new cuts because they are terrible choices.
The two-disc set contains some fabulous material of particular interest to the Disney aficionados and early animation fans. Disney and Iwerks got their break with the Alice Comedies, a series of cartoons about a real girl who has adventures in a cartoon world, a reverse of the popular Max Fleischer series, Out of the Inkwell featuring Koko the Clown. Three Annie shorts are included as are two Mickey Mouse cartoons, “Plane Crazy,” his screen debut, and “Steamboat Willie,” the first with sound, and the first Silly Symphony, “Skeleton Dance.” The latter three cartoons were all completely drawn by Iwerks.
Iwerks is the subject of the 1999 feature-length documentary The Hand Behind The Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story. It’s a very good biography that sheds light on Iwerks’ contributions and his relationship with Disney. They began working together in Kansas City, Missouri, and Iwerks was an integral part of the success of Disney and his studio. They began to clash and Iwerks left to form his own studio in 1930. He was not able to match his achievements with Disney and eventually returned ten years later, but not as an animator. Instead, Iwerks was a technical innovator in special visual effects for projects like Mary Poppins, 101 Dalmatians, and non-Disney films like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit probably won’t go over well with kids today as the animation is dated, but it is a fantastic set of great historical significance for those interested in Disney and cinema.