Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Rabbit Returns?

I'm sure most of you reading this are already familiar with the bizarre news that Disney, at the behest of new president and CEO Bob Iger, has traded ABC sportscaster Al Michaels to NBC in return for, among other things, the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks' original 1920s cartoon star (and the epitome of the animated Third Banana). Thanks to the Disney Corporation's relentless self-mythologizing, everyone knows the story about Walt losing the rabbit, and most of his staff, to producer Charles Mintz (who, in turn, had the rug yanked from under him by Universal, Oswald's true owners). But what's usually glossed over is the fact that Oswald continued to thrive for years, first for Mintz's studio, a hotbed of talent that formed the foundation for most of the post-silent animation industry, and then for Walter Lantz. Also left undiscussed is the quality of the post-Disney Oswalds, which is actually quite good and, in the case of the Lantz cartoons, is actually an improvement, IMO, over the Disney series. This may be a matter of apples and oranges, but the Walter Lantz/Bill Nolan Oswalds are wild and very funny in ways that were anathema at the Disney Studio. The clean, tidy, and rural Mickey Mouse cartoons are precisely what Disney's Oswald series would have been had Mintz not taken the character. But left free to run wild at the distinctly big city Walter Lantz studio, Oswald became something else entirely. While remaining little more than an inkblot with a distinctive and readily recognizable shape, he became the rubbery cinematic Id of the Lantz animators; a vehicle for gags about booze, butts, and gratuitous violence, all timed to infectious hot jazz. These cartoons, along with the Fleischer output from this period, exemplify pre-Code synchronized animation. Interestingly enough, Lantz's attempts to emulate Disney's advances in character animation and reinvent Oswald as a genuine personality killed the property. The process began early as Lantz gradually dressed the nearly nude rabbit up, giving him shoes and then a shirt, culminating in the reestablishment of the formerly boozing and carousing adult rabbit as a clean-living adolescent (with the voice of Mickey Rooney.. sometimes). By the time Oswald had been completely redesigned as a semi-realistic white bunny, the cartoons had become dull and, following The Egg Cracker Suite in 1943, Oswald was retired from the screen (save a walk-on cameo in The Woody Woodpecker Polka in 1951). In comic books, Oswald, now a brown rabbit, survived well into the early 60s, once again an adult but, like all animated cartoon characters in Dell comics, a colorless suburban homeowner with lookalike nephews (yeah, kids in 1957 must have gotten a big kick out of seeing Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker mowing lawns).

So what's the score? What's next? What, exactly, has the Disney Corporation retrieved from Universal? Oswald isn't one character but three, and I assume that the Mouse Factory is primarily interested in Walt and Iwerks' original inkblot model, but where can they go with it? It's not enough just to own Oswald, you have to utilize him and make him relevant, especially if you hope to merchandise the hell out of him. So do they develop a personality for him or what? Does he get a series? A CGI feature? Do they give him the voice of Will Farrell? And what about the Mintz and Lantz Oswald cartoons? Does Disney own any part of these now that they have Oswald back in the fold? Answers! I want ANSWERS!!

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Blogger East Side said...

Disney changed Mickey Mouse -- its greatest creation -- from a snappy little wiseguy into a badly-dressed amusement park greeter. I don't see them doing anything better with Oswald -- a character unknown to 99% of the population, and with a name better remembered as a presidential assassin. The best they'll come up with is a free giveaway at Burger King.

3:41 AM  
Blogger NYCOPYGUY said...

If I read one of the reports correctly, Disney only gets back rights to the Walt/Ub original, not the Mintz or Lantz toons or anything related to them (like the countless comic book stories Oswald appeared in). To me, it seems the main thing Disney will do is release a DVD of early Oswald... and with the way DVDs sell these days, that's probably more than enough for them. Perhaps they'll offer some seriographs, t-shirts with Oswald movie posters and chachka collectibles as well in the vintage look, but I don't foresee any reintroduction in new adventures. After all, they hardly ever brush off Mickey, Donald, Goofy and Pluto for new projects.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Yeah.. Wishful thinking on my part. With the rights to Oswald and the Universal shorts now effectively split, it probably now means that it's even LESS likely that the Lantz Oswalds will resurface. Ah, well...

6:29 AM  

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