Before Mickey Mouse, there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the first character Walt Disney ever created. The silent film Sleigh Bells was just recently rediscovered; it was produced in 1928 and features Oswald among other characters. Disney and his animator, Ub Iwerks, created Oswald together, but due to contractual disagreements with Universal, they dropped Oswald and went on to create Mickey Mouse. “There’s a good argument to be made that had Walt Disney not fallen out with Universal over contracts, he would have gone on to make one hundred more Oswald films and Mickey Mouse may have never have been created,” says Justin Johnson, an Animator Programmer at the British Film Institution (BFI). Oswald and Mickey are said to both be very much alike. Cartoons back then tended to be very generic and lacked personality, but both Mickey and Oswald are very fun and mischievous, and they share many physical traits.
The decades-old film has been preserved at the BFI National Archive since the 1980s after a film company went bankrupt. Johnson describes [Sleigh Bells] as the “holy grail of Disney Films” because it was created before Disney’s split with Universal. “The restoration of this film will introduce many audiences to Disney’s work in the silent period, it clearly demonstrates the vitality and imagination of his animation at a key point in his early careers,” says Robin Baker, Head Curator at the BFI National Archive. Walt Disney Animation Studios has digitally remastered the film, and the full version of the film will premiere Dec. 12 at BFI Southbank in London, UK. They will also be showing all of Disney’s classic Christmas themed short films, including Mickey’s Good Deed (1932), Night Before Christmas (1933), The Art of Skiing (1941), Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952), Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), Prep and Landing: Operation Secret Santa (2010), and Frozen Fever (2015). Tickets to the Sleigh Bells premiere are currently being sold on the BFI’s website.