Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
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Credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Lost pre-Mickey Mouse cartoon from Disney found in Japan

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Nov 16, 2018, 3:21 PM EST

An early cartoon from Walt Disney, pre-dating Mickey Mouse and thought lost for decades, has been rediscovered -- just as the 90th anniversary of Mickey's public premiere, Steamboat Willie, arrives this Sunday (Nov. 18).

The cartoon in question, called Neck 'n' Neck, was created in 1928 and features a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It's one of 27 short animated films starring the character, whom Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks created for the fledgling Walt Disney Studio in the 1920s.

Oswald was the first character to star in his own series of films for Disney, with the cartoons distributed through Universal to great success. However, producer Charles Mintz claimed the rights to Oswald in a dispute with Disney, taking the character in-house at Universal. Right after the meeting with Mintz in which he lost control of Oswald, Disney decided to come up with a new character that he would own himself -- and that character was Mickey Mouse.

Meanwhile, while a number of the Oswald films survived, seven of them were thought to be permanently lost, including Neck 'n' Neck. But an 84-year-old anime historian named Yasushi Watanabe in Osaka, Japan recently discovered that he had a 16mm copy of the film in his personal collection -- after buying it nearly 70 years ago from a toy wholesaler who sold it to him for the Japanese equivalent of $4.40.

Titled Mickey Manga Spide (Mickey cartoon speedy), Watanabe's copy is just two minutes long, while the original film was five minutes. For years he didn't realize what he had, but told a local newspaper, "As I've been a Disney fan for many years, I'm happy that I was able to play a role" in finding even an abridged version of the cartoon.

There was even a book published last year by author and Disney animator David Bossert, called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons, which detailed the history of the Oswald shorts and the ongoing hunt for the missing entries in the series. Another of the missing Oswald cartoons was discovered in the British Film Institute archives in 2015.

By the way, Disney CEO Robert Iger got Oswald back in 2006 in a rather odd deal that sent sports commentator Al Michaels to NBC (which, like SYFY, is owned by Universal) in exchange for the character. So now Disney once again owns Oswald and the rights to all his films, including the remaining ones that are yet to be found (Oswald also made a cameo in the 2013 Disney short Get a Horse!).

As for Neck 'n' Neck, it's currently at the Kobe Planet Film Archive in Japan, one of that country's largest film collections, and David Bossert hopes to bring to Los Angeles and screen it for animation scholars.

(via the Hollywood Reporter)