Lost 1928 Walt Disney film uncovered in British Film Institute archive

Clip of a Walt Disney film originally released in 1928, featuring Disney’s first-ever animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. (Walt Disney)

Clip of a Walt Disney film originally released in 1928, featuring Disney’s first-ever animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. (Walt Disney)

A long-lost Walt Disney film featuring his first animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, has been discovered tucked away in the national archive of the British Film Institute.

The BFI announced the remarkable discovery of the six-minute film Sleigh Bells, unseen since its release in 1928 and feared lost for ever. The film has since been restored by Walt Disney Animation Studios and will get its world premiere at the BFI in London next month.

Robin Baker, the BFI National Archive head curator, said the film demonstrated the vitality and imagination of Disney’s animation at a key point in his early career”. He added: “What a joyful treat to discover a long-lost Walt Disney film in the BFI national archive and to be able to show it to a whole new audience 87 years after it was made. The restoration of this film will introduce many audiences to Disney’s work in the silent period.”

The film entered the archives 34 years ago, part of a job lot from a Soho film laboratory that had gone out of business. The stock was dated 1931 and there was nothing to indicated it was an important lost film.

“There must be a hundred things called Sleigh Bells,” a BFI spokesman said. There are approximately 1m items in the archive, including 770,000 TV programmes, so it would be impossible for everything to be watched.

The discovery was made by a researcher browsing the BFI archive catalogue for lost Disney titles, recognising that the words Sleigh Bells could mean it was a missing short film.

While some Oswald films had survived, Sleigh Bells was believed to have been lost. “This is the only copy in the world,” the spokesman said.

Sleigh Bells features Oswald, a clear precursor to Mickey Mouse. He looks very similar – like Mickey as a rabbit, with longer ears.

The animation is by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, which both went on to create Mickey after a contractual disagreement with Universal, for whom they had created the Oswald films.

The film features Oswald in an ice hockey game against a winter wonderland backdrop and has surreal touches with the rabbit at one point removing his ear to make a balloon. There’s also an elephant and a laughing donkey, who gets the puck stuck in his mouth.

Andrew Millstein, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, said the company was thrilled to be collaborating with the BFI on restoration of the short Oswald film. “The Oswald shorts are an important part of our studios’ history and we have been working with film archives and private collectors all around the world to research the missing titles,” he said.

Sleigh Bells will get its world premiere as part of a programme, called It’s a Disney Christmas: Seasonal Shorts, on 12 December.

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