Sunday, December 18, 2022


Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is an animated cartoon character introduced almost a century ago that is now having their moment, having stayed fresh through little exposure. Most notable for having been taken away from Walt Disney in a contract dispute with the series’ distributor, leading to his creation of Mickey Mouse, Oswald has made only sporadic appearances in video games, cartoon shorts, theme park appearances and merchandising since The Walt Disney Company regained rights to the character in 2006, but the appearance of two new shorts in December 2022, one to advertise a collaboration between Disney and fashion brand Givenchy, have given Oswald new vitality.

Oswald appears superficially to be a rabbit version of his 1920s contemporary Felix the Cat, and the “rubber hose” animation, frantic stories and stretchy cartoon logic in Oswald’s cartoons were pioneered by Felix, whose tail could turn into objects just like Oswald’s ears can. To a modern audience, these cartoons could appear either to be jerky, slow or repetitive, which is down to the innovation and sophistication in animated shorts produced later by Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM, taking advantages of using plastic cels over paper, multi-plane camerawork, as well as colour and sound. Watching these earlier cartoons is like bridging the gap between what animated cartoons became, and newspaper strip cartoons like “Mutt & Jeff” and “Krazy Kat”, which themselves received their own animated series.

Likewise, both Oswald and Felix suffered from the rise of Mickey Mouse, and the change in direction of animation and story towards a more realistic and natural style, but while Felix the Cat retained a similar appearance through major reboots in the 1930s and beyond, Oswald was redesigned multiple times by successor animators Hugh Harman & Rudolph Ising, and by Walter Lantz, who later created Woody Woodpecker. With the stylised black rabbit design supplanted by shorter limbs, then Mickey-like white gloves and shorts, and a more childlike personality, and again by a very Disney-like realistic rabbit design, the character that became known as just “Oswald Rabbit” had no connection to the Disney original. 

The 2006 deal with NBC Universal that traded Oswald for the services of ABC and ESPN American football commentator Al Michaels was for the trademark of “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”, the twenty-seven Disney-produced cartoons produced in 1927-29, and anything physical relating to them that Universal still possessed – anything made from then remains with Universal in almost complete obscurity, leaving Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to be known as only Walt Disney’s original creation, existing in one particular moment of animation history, untouched by time or entropy. Mickey Mouse, personality bland-ed out of him by changing times, tastes and placement as a corporate mascot, comes off worse to me as a result, although the more recent “Mickey Mouse” TV series produced by Paul Rudish reintroduced some of the irascibility the character first displayed in 1928, which over time had been subsumed into Donald Duck.

The new Oswald short, directed by “Pocahontas” director Eric Goldberg, and the new Givenchy fashion campaign, are notable for featuring hand-drawn animation, with the clothes featuring Oswald with the aim of capturing “the spirit of adventure”. A special animated billboard has also appeared in Times Square, New York. There is the sense that Disney is building towards something. It may prove to be the beginning of another Disney franchise, but with this character still being relatively untouched, it has the potential to be its most vibrant.

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