In 1927, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon rabbit that played accordion, fell in love, fought bad guys, and had a knack for escaping certain death. Enormously popular with audiences who’d never seen an animated character behave the way Oswald did, he was destined for stardom — that is, until Walt Disney lost the rights to him in 1928. Oswald returned to Disney 78 years later. He’s made a few appearances in games and comic books since, but, for the most part, we still don’t know what will become of him. We also don’t know why Disney CEO Bob Iger wanted him back.
Was reclaiming Oswald a nostalgia-fueled move? Perhaps a part of some vision yet unfulfilled? Is this animated bunny some sort of avatar for regret, an animated Rosebud for a media mogul? Probably not. If history is any indication — and it almost always is — Disney has something up its sleeve (or under its hat).
The History of Oswald
In 1927, a few years after Walt Disney moved from Kansas City to Hollywood to start a new chapter with Disney Brothers Studio, America met Oswald for the first time and he took the country by storm. Audiences were enchanted by Oswald, who was lively and humorous and a far cry from the cardboard cartoons to which they were accustomed. All was well and the future looked bright for Disney and Iwerks as they continued to release cartoons in the Oswald series. It wouldn’t stay that way for long.
In early 1928, Disney took a train to New York to renew the contract with his distributor, Charles Mintz, and to ask for a slight increase in pay. When he arrived, Mintz — who had, a year earlier, encouraged Disney’s creation of the new Oswald character — informed him that not only would he not be receiving more money, but that he and his backer, Universal Pictures, had persuaded much of Disney’s staff to abandon his studio in favor of Universal efforts. To make matters worse, Mintz told Disney that per their original contract, Oswald didn’t belong to Disney but to Universal. And so, Disney had two choices: Either abandon his own studio and join Universal Pictures, or leave his most successful character and his most lucrative contract behind to try to forge ahead on his own.
Devastated, Disney returned to Hollywood with a thinned staff, without a contract, and without Oswald. Walt was trying to stomach the blow Mintz and Universal had just delivered to his career. Upon his return, Disney, Iwerks, and Disney’s brother, Roy, channeled that hurt into a new project. Armed with the knowledge that they must somehow begin again, but without any idea whether or not they’d be able to find enough business to keep the studio afloat, they put pencil to paper and created a new character.
It was the death knell of Oswald that jumpstarted the Walt Disney Company we know today, and we all know the rest of the story: It belongs to one of the most recognizable characters in contemporary popular culture. In the wake of Oswald, Iwerks, and the brothers Disney created Mickey Mouse.
After Universal took control, Oswald appeared in more short films and, later, in comics, but he never gained the popularity that Mickey Mouse enjoyed. He was largely forgotten, overshadowed by Mickey in a world where one round, cheerful Disney-drawn character apparently satisfied much of the national appetite for animated levity.
In 2006, Bob Iger, the current CEO of The Walt Disney Company, made a trade with NBC: In return for ESPN sportscaster Al Michaels (who wanted to get out of his contract to follow Sunday Night Football over to NBC), Iger wanted Oswald back.
On the surface, it seemed something of an uneven trade. Disney was losing a valuable property and in return gaining one that hadn’t been used in years — one that held almost no quantifiable public appeal, and seemed to have little bearing on the company’s plans going forward. Even so, the deal was struck and Oswald returned to Disney in 2006.
Now, ten years later, Oswald’s made appearances, but not terribly frequently. He’s a part of the video games series Epic Mickey, he’s shown up around Disney theme parks and has become a pretty big merchandising effort, he’s found his way into comic books and his long-lost short The Hungry Hobos appeared on the Walt Disney Signature Collection Snow White release. Still, thus far, we’ve yet to see Oswald in a new film, show, or game as anything more than a supporting character. Disney isn’t one to squander the potential of a character already in its arsenal and Oswald’s an easily recognizable character with something of a Disney-esque fairytale backstory of his own now that he’s “home.” And most importantly, he’s paid for. So, does Disney have bigger plans?
Other than maybe making Oswald a more regular fixture of Mickey and Friends, no, probably not.
But the key element of his appearances in properties like Epic Mickey is that he was given his own storyline, his own history, and his own developed arc — his own place in the current Disney landscape.
Warren Spector, creative director of Epic Mickey developer Junction Point Studios, described Oswald’s role in Epic Mickey as something of a lightly antagonistic big brother. He recognizes Mickey’s realized potential in stark contrast to his own fairytale ending which was cut short by a rights dispute. In the end though Mickey comes to care for Oswald and Oswald for Mickey, their development is the stuff of any true Disney story. But, more than that, it shows thought, recognition, and a new direction for Oswald’s story.
Going forward, Oswald’s highly unlikely to be the star of his own film or the centerpiece of any large Disney efforts, going the way of Mickey and Friends. Though still a major fixture at the theme parks and in Disney products for kids, Mickey Mouse is a figurehead without much to do outside of the hallowed halls of Disney parks and merchandise. Oswald will likely join him, along with Goofy, Minnie, Pluto, and the rest — inextricable pieces of Disney history that are popular with kids, but often forgotten until one steps through the gates back into the Magic Kingdom. Disney has moved so far beyond mice and rabbits that it’s difficult to see them expending much effort on properties that don’t have the wide appeal of Pixar films and Star Wars.
That said, in this, the Year of Our TV Overlords 2016, no reboot is out of the question. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before Disney calls up Mickey and Friends for a nostalgia reboot à la DuckTales.