Though he starred in dozens of cartoons from 1927 through the '30s, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit is more famous for what he isn't than what he is. Namely, he isn't Mickey Mouse, the most famous cartoon character ever invented. But he might have been. Created by Walt Disney's creative partner Ub Iwerks, Oswald starred in a series of popular silent cartoons the Disney team made for Charles Mintz at Universal. All was going well until Disney asked Mintz for more money. Instead, he got his budget slashed, most of his staff hired away, and a stark reminder that he didn't own Oswald in the first place. Vowing never to develop a character he didn't own again, Disney finished out his contractual obligations and struck out on his own with Iwerks, one of the few employees to stay loyal. Next up: Mickey Mouse.
But what of the rabbit that got left behind? Largely unseen and out of the Walt Disney Company's control for decades, Disney and Iwerks' Oswald cartoons have now been repackaged as part of a two-disc DVD set. And though Oswald bears an uncanny resemblance to Mickey, he still seems like a transitional creation. Though given a greater emotional range than most '20s animated characters, he was still steps away from the expressive "personality animation" that would become a Disney trademark. (Anyone who finds Mickey Mouse too bland will find little to like here.) The animation, while inventive, lacks the hunger to try something new that would characterize the early days of Disney's own studio. Often assembled with little concern with plot, these cartoons feature a laugh, rinse, repeat rhythm that grows tiresome fairly quickly. Who knows? With a better contract, Disney and Iwerks might have pumped out serviceable Oswald shorts and left the pioneering work for others.
Key features: While the Oswald shorts collected here are best consumed a few at a time in the spirit of historical inquiry, the second disc boasts a nicely done, feature-length documentary on the too-often-overlooked Iwerks by his granddaughter, Leslie Iwerks. Less innovative than informative, it covers Iwerks' life from his early years to his '30s split with his longtime partner Disney to his work at his own studio to his eventual return to Disney.