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It’s amazing the things you can find when you go digging in the right place. A researcher was digging through the archives of the British Film Institute and what they found was the rarest of gems, especially for a fan of Disney animation. A long lost short film that was, in fact, so old that until fairly recently Disney wouldn’t even have owned it.
The film is called Sleigh Bells. It’s about six minutes long and its star is Disney’s pre- Mickey Mouse mascot, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. According to Deadline, the BFI has now worked with Walt Disney Animation Studios to restore the print and the short will now be screened at BFI Southbank on December 12 as part of a collection of Disney holiday shorts.
Oswald was one of the first character creations between Walt Disney and his frequent collaborator, Ub Iwerks. The two created the character for a series of shorts for Universal, and following a contract dispute, the two parties parted ways but Universal kept the rights to Oswald. This led Walt and Ub to create the now infinitely more famous Mickey Mouse as a replacement for the lost icon. In 2006, Disney made a deal with Universal to reacquire the rights to Oswald as part of a deal that reportedly included letting sportscaster Al Michaels out of his ABC contract so he could go to work for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. It’s amazing how things come together. Since then, Oswald has returned to the Disney fold canonically as Mickey Mouse’s half-brother (yes there’s canon to these things, what of it?) and has been featured in video games as well as hanging out in Disney’s theme parks with the rest of the familiar faces.
The Oswald cartoons apparently have a way of disappearing. This is actually the second of his shorts in recent years to be uncovered in places where they’re not expected. In 2011, another short titled Hungry Hobos was unearthed and sold at auction. That short had been missing since before World War II. It’s not entirely clear how long Sleigh Bells has been MIA but it’s likely in the same ballpark. It’s not all that surprising that this stuff would disappear, what with it being nearly 100 years old and created in an era where the idea of preserving film wasn’t really considered. Luckily that’s exactly what the BFI exists to do.
For fans of classic Disney animation, hopefully we’ll see this guy end up on some future DVD release so that the rest of us can see it, too. Either that or it will be available on the all-Disney streaming service that will include cartoons, Pixar films, Marvel movies and all of Star Wars that I’m thoroughly convinced will exist one day.