Following the end of Disney’s successful live-action meets animation “Alice” shorts, his animation studio was given the opportunity to develop a new character for Universal Pictures. In 1927, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was born. Studio head Carl Laemmle signed Disney to create a total of 26 Oswald shorts, made in ‘27 and ‘28, with Charles B. Mintz and George Winkler as producers. What Disney didn’t appreciate, until a fateful New York meeting with Mintz in the spring of 1928, was that he had failed to secure ownership of his character or his work. Mintz and Universal completely controlled Disney’s Oswald output and the producer had gone behind Walt’s back to sign most of his animators to exclusive contracts. Disney vowed to never again lose control of his work and, so the legend goes, created Mickey Mouse on the train ride back to California. Universal continued to make Oswald cartoons, first with Winkler in charge and then giving future Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz the reins, for another decade and retained the rights to the entire series. This included the work done by Disney and his animators, notables like Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, who later teamed up to help create Leon Schlesinger’s Looney Tunes before making several animated shorts for MGM, and Friz Freleng.
As floppy-eared luck would have it, the Walt Disney Company finally, after nearly 80 years, was able to secure the rights to the character of Oswald and the existing shorts he starred in by a highly unique exchange in February of 2006. When the ABC television network, a subsidiary of Disney, found themselves without broadcast rights to the NFL Monday Night Football game while still having announcer Al “Do you believe in miracles?” Michaels under contract and NBC, with parent company Universal still owning Oswald, needed a play-by-play man for its newly acquired Sunday night NFL telecast, someone apparently had the brilliant idea to make a little trade. And thus Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was freed from Universal in exchange for Disney releasing Al Michaels from his contract. Now, less than two years later, half of the Disney-made Oswald shorts have been collected for a two-disc set in the Walt Disney Treasures series. One studio's trash has become another's Treasure.
All 13 of the included Oswald cartoons are located on disc 1, which is dual-layered and padded by a featurette about the character’s history with Walt Disney, a lengthy stills gallery, and a brief look at a couple of scenes from a lost short. Leonard Maltin, film critic and frequent contributor to the Walt Disney Treasures sets, also provides an introduction (1:55) on the disc that informs viewers of the difficulty in finding these silent Oswald cartoons, many of which have no known prints and are presumed lost, and prepares us for image quality below the usual Disney standards. The video actually varies quite a bit (more on that below), but lowered expectations are probably a wise move. Next on the first disc are the cartoons, which can be played consecutively straight through, or individually. They’re arranged in chronological order, with the 6 from 1927 occupying the first menu screen and the 7 from 1928 on the other. Commentaries are optional on 6 of the shorts, but only accessible through the Bonus Features option on the menu and, for some reason, not arranged in the same chronological order as found elsewhere on the disc. A rundown of each cartoon with year, time, and origin of the print follows:
“Trolley Troubles” - 1927 - (5:54) - sourced from 35 mm nitrate negative provided by Universal
“Oh Teacher” - 1927 - (6:02) - sourced from 35 mm nitrate negative provided by Universal (commentary by Mark Kausler)
“Great Guns!” - 1927 - (6:51) - sourced from 35 mm nitrate negative provided by Universal
“The Mechanical Cow” - 1927 - (6:12) - sourced from 35 mm safety print made from 16 mm source
“The Ocean Hop” - 1927 - (6:12) - sourced from 35 mm nitrate negative provided by Universal (commentary by Mark Kausler)
“All Wet” - 1927 - (6:47) - sourced from 35 mm nitrate negative provided by Universal
“Rival Romeos” - 1928 - (6:27) - sourced from private print provided by David Wyatt
“Bright Lights” - 1928 - (7:42) - sourced from collection of Pere Tresserra at the Filmoteca de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain (commentary by Leonard Maltin & Jerry Beck)
“Ozzie of the Mounted” - 1928 - (5:13) - sourced from 35 mm print provided by The Netherlands Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (commentary by Jerry Beck)
“Oh What a Knight” - 1928 - (5:50) - sourced from 35 mm safety print (commentary by Leonard Maltin & Mark Kausler)
“Sky Scrappers” - 1928 - (5:36) - sourced from 16 mm prints provided by George Eastman House & UCLA
“The Fox Chase” - 1928 - (5:24) - sourced from private print provided by David Wyatt (commentary by Jerry Beck)
“Tall Timber” - 1928 - (7:42) - sourced from print provided by Norwegian Film Institute
Disc 1 bonus features, in addition to the often informative commentaries, are highlighted by “Oswald Goes Home” (13:52), a featurette tracking the history of Walt Disney’s involvement with Oswald that includes interviews with Disney CEO Bob Iger, Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, and others. Leonard Maltin narrates a look at the drawings of 2 original scenes from the lost Oswald short “Sagebrush Sadie” in another short supplement (1:02) included here and a collection of 60 Oswald press clippings, advertisements, and drawings round out the disc’s extras. The gallery has a nice mixture of unique and interesting images, all but 3 in black and white, that show everything from a German picture with a rabbit that looks nothing like Oswald (billed as Das Verrückt Karnickel, which, if my Deutsch is accurate, means The Crazy Bunny) to a full colour ad for an Oswald stencil set. All bonus features are interlaced.
As I said earlier, the image quality on the 13 shorts (all in original 1.33:1 full frame) varies considerably, which is understandable given their diverse origins. The first pair of cartoons, “Trolley Troubles” and “Oh Teacher,” look really impressive for 80-year-old animation and especially good considering they’re the two oldest. However, most of the remaining Oswald entries look noticeably worse and are sometimes plagued by ghosting and combing in addition to dirt and lack of sharpness. “The Mechanical Cow” and “All Wet” have mild damage marks. “Rival Romeos” is quite grainy. “Bright Lights” and “Tall Timber” are both interlaced and exhibit minor combing and ghosting issues throughout, a problem that also pops up on a few other shorts in certain scenes. “Ozzie of the Mounted” has dirt and tears on the side of the frame and the corners are rounded (not that that’s necessarily a complaint). “The Fox Chase” looks perhaps the roughest, with very weak black levels and below average sharpness. “Bright Lights” also has a shaky image at times and the right edge of the frame has a bit of dead space. The final short, “Tall Timber,” is severely pictureboxed (though the opening title card is not).
Do all these little imperfections hurt the viewing experience? Personally, not that much. The pictureboxing is slightly annoying and the combing and ghosting will be very noticeable on high-end displays, but anyone expecting significantly better video is probably being unrealistic. As Maltin and the other commentators repeatedly hammer home, it’s a near-miracle that we’re seeing these little pieces of animation history at all. Some are incomplete and/or altered from the original silent versions, done by Walter Lantz in 1931 upon resissuing them in theaters, and who knows if we'll ever get to see the still-lost Oswald cartoons that Disney worked on and that remain unfound. It’s a cause for celebration that at least some of the ones we can see look great and that they are all more than watchable. Truth be told, they look better than many of the early Mickey Mouse shorts from previous Disney Treasures sets and the shorts are remarkably clean, maybe even scrubbed a little too much since some lines are faded or hardly visible. I can't say if this is just from aging or if some of it has to do with possible digital noise reduction (DVNR).
As for the audio, there’s not a lot to say. The shorts are all silent except for Robert Israel’s newly recorded score, which is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The new accompaniment is appropriately and predicatably energetic and mostly a good fit with what we're seeing on the screen. Quality is perfectly clear and without any unwanted hisses or other noise. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are provided for the rare synced-up sound and for the commentaries. They’re white in colour and also found on the bonus features.
The second disc in the set serves as a tribute to Ub Iwerks, a real unsung hero of animation. Leonard Maltin introduces this disc too (2:04). The meatiest piece on the entire set is Leslie Iwerks' 91-minute documentary about her grandfather - The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story. It's presented in full frame, 1.33:1 aspect ratio, interlaced, and with a humble, but clear Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track and English subtitles for the hearing impaired. Kelsey Grammar narrates the 1999 movie as it follows Iwerks from his Kansas City beginnings alongside a very young Walt Disney and through a remarkable life that helped to revolutionise the medium. Aside from co-creating Oswald, Iwerks also single-handedly drew the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Plane Crazy," began the Silly Symphonies series with "The Skeleton Dance," and added his talent to many films including Mary Poppins and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. His life is an extraordinary story and one that's wholly deserving of a feature-length documentary. Told mostly through still photographs and interviews with people like Maltin, Chuck Jones and others familiar with the animator, the younger Iwerks' film is interesting, despite a slow start, but seems to barely scratch the surface at Ub Iwerks and is maybe more of a good primer on the animator and his involvement with Walt Disney than a comprehensive look at the depths of his genius. Still, it's a welcome inclusion and the DVD debut of a documentary anyone interested in early animation should make time to watch.
Six cartoons, grouped into "Before Oswald" and "After Oswald," finish off the disc and can be found under "The Work of Ub Iwerks." The first three are all from the "Alice" series featuring a live action little girl thrown into an animated world. "Alice Gets Stung" (8:41), from 1925, "Alice in the Wooly West" (6:50), from 1926, and "Alice's Balloon Race" (7:49), also from 1925, look reasonably good, though the latter two are interlaced and all three are pictureboxed with rounded corners. They sound okay despite some noticeable hiss and crackle at times. These silent shorts are all new to Disney DVD, though "Alice's Balloon Race" is on the VCI Alice in Cartoonland release. A few of the other "Alice" shorts were previously released in the Walt Disney Treasures series in the Disney Rarities set. Three Iwerks cartoons already found on earlier Treasures sets make up the post-Oswald shorts. "Plane Crazy" (5:58), "Steamboat Willie" (7:43), and "The Skeleton Dance" (5:33), all from 1929, are transferred progressively and look on par with their original Treasures presentations. Oddly, "Steamboat Willie" is in 1.78:1 and pillarboxed to its original 1.21:1 aspect ratio. Both "Plane Crazy" and "The Skeleton Dance" are pictureboxed.
Back in 2001 when the Walt Disney Treasures line began, collectors were treated to a very special presentation of a nice metal tin with unique, embossed numbers on the outside, printed-on descriptions on the back of the case, and a cardboard band wrapped around the set. Inside, a double-thick keepcase safely housed the two discs. Over the years, Disney has seemingly cut some corners and eliminated the embossed numbers and the cardboard band and stopped printing the back label directly on the case in favour of an info card with a couple of glue blotches. For the last few waves, the case inside has been a weird and unwieldy contraption that's still thick, but now lighter weight and with a disc tray facing backwards. Thankfully, the visually appealing disc art and inclusion of a collectible art postcard and an 8-page booklet remain, as does the usually fascinating content on the DVDs themselves. A certificate of authenticity detailing the exact number of your set (out of 120,000 here) is an always exciting discovery as well, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the higher quality releases of the first couple of waves.
For the Oswald set, Disney has drawn special attention to the unique and special circumstances of the character and shorts by making the tin a striking gold colour and including a replica Oswald button. It's a really nice touch and a good way to draw attention to a set that otherwise seems a tad skimpy on content.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is a fun little fellow. He's not hardly as entertaining as the early, feistier Mickey Mouse or some of the more popular cartoon stars of the silent and/or black and white era, but he has his moments all the same. Sometimes mischievous, sometimes gallant, the character now plays like a fascinating hint of what was to come in the next few years from a small animation studio that became an empire. The Walt Disney Treasures - The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit set contains 13 of the Disney-produced Oswald shorts and an entire second disc devoted to Walt's friend and essential collaborator Ub Iwerks. It's not exactly a wealth of material, and some of it can be found on other DVD releases, but the shorts here are things unseen for decades and mostly of great quality. Whatever Oswald lacks in entertainment value, he makes up for in historical worth. Any Disney or animation buff will be delighted with this set and it's a fine addition to the Treasures line.