This is a special Christmas for fans of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit – although, admittedly, that’s quite a select group. Just in case you don’t belong to it, the first thing you should know is that Oswald must be the unluckiest individual ever to be called “lucky”. One of the earliest successful cartoon characters, he was created in 1927 by Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks. Together they made 26 Oswald cartoons for Universal Studios, and hoped to make more, but when contract negotiations didn’t go the way Disney was hoping, he turned his back on the character and created a new one, this time keeping hold of the rights. The new character, Mickey Mouse, went on to become...well, Mickey Mouse. Oswald lived on at Universal, but his look, voice and personality drifted: even the colour of his fur kept changing. He was retired in 1951 with a cameo in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, and for decades he was nothing more than a footnote in animation history.
Now, though, he’s making a comeback. The Walt Disney Company has become prouder and more protective of its heritage lately, and in 2006 it regained the rights to Oswald from Universal and began tracking down the 26 cartoons overseen by Disney and Iwerks. Up until 2013, nine were still lost. But then a 16mm print was found in sub-zero storage at the British Film Institute’s archive in Berkhamsted. Two years of restoration later, “Sleigh Bells” (1928) was the centrepiece of a BFI screening of festive Disney shorts in London on Saturday. And what a Christmas treat it was.
With live piano accompaniment improvised by silent-movie specialist John Sweeney, “Sleigh Bells” proved to be just as intoxicating as it must have been when it was first shown 87 years ago. The abrupt ending of the five-minute cartoon suggests that at least a few seconds are still missing, but that hardly matters. In common with the 1930s Disney cartoons screened alongside it, “Sleigh Bells” is as uninterested in plot as it is in the laws of physics. The setting is a winter landscape in which an ice-hockey match is underway, but the cartoon is ultimately a black-and-white cavalcade of anarchic visual gags. Oswald’s body stretches like a rubber band and twists like a corkscrew; he detaches one of his ears and inflates it like a balloon; instead of raising his hat, he lifts his whole scalp off his head. His co-stars are similarly surreal and similarly violent, from the elephant that’s used as a trampoline to the pair of bloomers that walks through the snow of its own accord. Often, a tableau stays on the screen for several seconds, allowing the viewer’s eyes to rove around and spot all sorts of individual skits taking place simultaneously in different corners of the picture: a Bruegel scene, as directed by Charlie Chaplin.
To a 21st-century audience, the busy chaos of “Sleigh Bells” is a breath of fresh air. We’re used to cartoons which are increasingly photorealistic, and we’re used to characters who adhere to the logic of the world around us, even if those characters are toys, dinosaurs or Michelin-starred rats. Oswald and his contemporaries are having too much fun to adhere to anything. When Pluto snores by the fire in “Mickey’s Orphans” (1931), his tail rolls up like a party horn. When Mickey Mouse visits a poverty-stricken family in “Mickey’s Good Deed” (1932), he spots a fish skeleton swimming around in a bowl. The joy of these cartoons is that they aren’t photorealistic. Literally anything can happen. And with all due respect to Pixar, it would be lovely to see that madcap spirit return to today’s big-screen animation. If Disney were to make a new Oswald cartoon that was true to the 1920s originals, we would be the lucky ones.