It’s safe to say Walt Disney’s legacy would look very different without Mickey Mouse. The iconic mascot is one of the world’s most beloved characters, and his image has served as a touchstone to our sweetest childhood memories for nearly a century.
But did you know that the lovable mouse wasn’t always Walt’s biggest success? Before Mickey became a global icon, another rambunctious, big-eared hero was out stealing the hearts of millions one cartoon reel at a time.
Disney kicked itself for years for letting its original golden boy slip away, but now, the House of Mouse is finally trying to make things right. There might just be a new face in Disneyland before you know it.
The year was 1927.
The world was teetering on the brink of the Great Depression, natural disasters were ravaging the United States, and Walter Elias Disney was running out of ideas.
With animation technologies proving increasingly restrictive and production costs on the rise, Disney Brothers Studio opted to end work on its successful mixed-media Alice comedies.
Walt needed something fresh, something to turn his studio’s fortunes around. That’s when Charles Mintz came calling.
Disney’s primary distributor, Mintz had gotten word that Universal Pictures was looking to get into the cartoon business with a character of its own.
The opportunity was too good to pass up, and so, alongside his chief animator Ub Iwerks, Walt got to work.
He envisioned the character as an animal, though cats were completely off the table. Felix the Cat and Krazy Kat were two of animation’s biggest stars at the time — if Walt was going to craft an icon, it’d have to be like nothing anyone had done before.
Long, floppy ears ultimately took the place of pointed ones, and after pulling a name out of a hat, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was born. He wasn’t much to look at on paper (literally), but once the reels started rolling, Oswald became more than just another silent cartoon.
Using live-action techniques and comedic stylings inspired by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Walt infused personality into Oswald, allowing him to dictate the flow of each film instead of being only a peg for gags.
This approach was unheard of at the time.
Oswald became Disney’s biggest hit to date, rivaling the popularity of established characters like Felix and Koko the Clown. As a result, the studio was able to expand its staff to 20 animators and even began investing in oil-drilling and stone-milling ventures.
In February 1928, the studio signed a three-year extension with Universal, guaranteeing Oswald would stick around through 1931. Walt was riding high on his unexpected success, though just a few months later, it all came crumbling down.
After learning through Iwerks that Mintz was looking to hire away his animators, Walt traveled to New York in the spring to shop Oswald to other distributors. Unfortunately, he had no takers, and after talks fell through with Mintz, Walt gave up on Oswald and his misadventures… for a while.
But on the train ride home from NYC, Walt resolved to develop a new character, one he’d have the total rights to — a few weeks later, Mortimer “Mickey” Mouse made his animated debut. But Oswald’s story didn’t end there: in fact, it was just beginning.
Now under complete control of Universal, Oswald went on to appear in 194 films over the next decade, albeit with a pretty different look. Producer Walter Lantz resolved to make the character “cuter,” adding a bigger head, larger eyes, shorter ears, and a full set of clothes.
He underwent another drastic change in the ’30s, taking on a more “realistic” look with white fur and an anatomically correct face. Yet even with these perceived improvements, Universal just couldn’t capture the same level of success Disney found with the original incarnation.
Oswald made his final film appearance in 1951, after which he primarily existed in the comic book world as a toy come to life in the vein of Winnie the Pooh. He later became the adventurous father of two orphaned bunnies… a far cry from life as an animated icon.
All the while, Mickey Mouse had steadily become the world’s most popular cartoon character, establishing Disney as a world power in entertainment. But in 2006, Disney CEO Bob Iger got to thinking: maybe there was room in the House of Mouse for one more.
And so, The Walt Disney Company traded sportscaster Al Michaels from their ABC and ESPN properties to NBC Universal in exchange for several assets, including the rights to Oswald. After almost 80 years away, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was finally home — but not everyone was happy.
See, the deal was partially motivated by the 2010 video game Epic Mickey, in which Oswald’s story serves as a meta reflection of his real-life history: Spiteful toward Disney for abandoning him and jealous of Mickey’s popularity, Oswald shapes the game world into a version of Disneyland with all images of Mickey replaced with his own.
But hurt feelings were smoothed over, and Disney began releasing product lines featuring Oswald. In 2012, an Oswald-themed merchant stand opened at Disney California Adventure. Oswald characters and “Oswald Ears” akin to “Mickey Ear” hats began appearing in the park soon after.
That same year, Oswald made his return to the screen in the animated short Harem Scarem after archival sketches by Iweks were recovered. He then made a cameo in the 2013 throwback-style Mickey Mouse cartoon Get A Horse!
, appearing alongside his brother for the very first time.
In 2019, a leak began circulating that an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series was in the works for the Disney streaming service Disney+. While most fans rejoiced at the prospect of Disney’s original creation finally getting the recognition he deserved, others were skeptical.
Beyond their physical similarities, some fans believed Oswald and Mickey were too similar to warrant independence: after all, everything Walt planned to do with the lucky rabbit he did with the lovable mouse. Yet Disney has never been shy about “borrowing” ideas — unfortunately, they sometimes take it a bit too far.
Ever since The Lion King came out in 1994, it’s been more than just one of the most popular entries in the Disney animated canon: it’s a critically acclaimed film that spawned a long-running Broadway musical and a live-action remake.
But the movie had as much controversy as success over the years.
Eagle-eyed fans started to notice details throughout the movie that are changing the way that they look at this beloved classic, and Disney has been coming under fire for it.
But to understand why, we need to go back in time and meet one special man.
In 1940s Japan, a young man wanted to use the power of his drawings to help convince people to take better care of the world. At only 17 years old, he published his first comic series and quickly became an overnight success.
This young artist took the nation by storm.
It was Osamu Tezuka, the man whose works like Astro Boy and Phoenix were so influential in Japanese comics and animation that he came to be known as the Walt Disney of Japan.
But what does this have to do with The Lion King?
Tezuka had been creating animation for years, and after Disney’s release of The Lion King, people started to notice some startling similarities to one of his works. Looking at the mural of Tezuka’s creations below, you may be able to find one that resembles a certain Disney character…
To make The Lion King, it seemed Disney ripped off characters and scenes from one of Tezuka’s works: The Jungle Emperor, or Kimba the White Lion. There are plenty of elements shared between the two that seem to point to foul play on Disney’s part.
Fans of classic Japanese animation began doing side-by-side comparisons of the two films and were startled by how many similarities the two shared, and Disney quickly found themselves in hot water. The evidence piled up in surprising ways, even going back to the development stages of The Lion King.
The two main characters share similar names, though simba literally means lion in Swahili. The most startling bit of evidence, however, comes from early pitch reels from The Lion King that show Simba as a white lion cub just like Kimba.
The finished film had some more bizarre similarities, too.
Many of the characters in The Lion King seem to be directly copied from Tesuka’s work. For example, both of the protagonists have a wise mandrill sage they receive advice from.
The film’s villains aren’t all that different, either.
On the left you have Scar and on the right you have… Claw. Both are evil lions with similar color schemes and a distinctive wound over their right eye. There was another curious element that these two villains seemed to share as well.
They both employ hyenas as henchmen! It might not be too much of a stretch to think that two animated films set in the African savanna might have similar animals as their characters. But the similarities only begin to get more suspicious from here.
Many of the most memorable scenes from The Lion King seem to have been directly lifted from Kimba, too. Observant film fans have compiled a full collection of eerily similar scenes that provide a strong case against Disney.
There are tons of examples ranging from Kimba/Simba surveying their kingdom…
To the climactic battle with Claw/Scar playing out almost entirely the same. But there was one scene in particular that seemed like it was way too similar to just be a mere coincidence, and it had people roaring for an answer from Disney.
The image of Mufasa as a giant lion in the sky is one of the most memorable scenes from the movie, but it looks like that one was also suspiciously similar to a scene from Kimba. Fans of the obscure Japanese animation weren’t the only ones to notice this either.
The suspected cat burglary by Disney was even parodied in an episode of The Simpsons! With all of this evidence against them, the crew who worked on The Lion King were forced to finally address these accusations.
Unsurprisingly, Lion King co-director Rob Minkoff, left, told the press that nobody working on the project had ever heard of Kimba, or were in any way influenced by Tezuka’s works.
According to some animation experts, there was no way that was possible though.
Researchers found that the other co-director, Roger Allers, had lived in Tokyo for 2 years in the 1980s when Tezuka’s work frequently aired on TV.
This lent serious doubt to Disney’s claim that nobody working on The Lion King knew who Tezuka was. Japanese animators responded with outrage.
A petition signed by 82 of Japan’s artists and hundreds of Kimba fans was sent to Disney requesting that Tezuka’s influence be acknowledged in the opening credits of The Lion King.
However, a response from an unexpected source stopped Disney from owning up to the controversy.
The president of Tezuka Productions stated, “If Disney took hints from the Jungle Emperor, our founder, the late Osamu Tezuka, would be very pleased by it.” Apparently Tezuka himself was a huge fan of Disney and had even worked on Bambi comics in Japan.
Not everyone was pleased by that answer though.
Many fans of the original work wonder if Tezuka Productions never took legal action against Disney out of fear of going up against such a big company with so many powerful lawyers.
Either way, Disney is probably more than happy to finally let this lion sleep tonight.
Meanwhile, fans continued to keep a close eye on Disney films in the future, though many only realized how thorough the media giant is with their movie details: a lot of scenes and characters were actually grounded in reality.
1. The Fire Extinguisher Scene in WALL-E: During the part in which WALL-E and Eve dance in space, WALL-E is seen using a fire extinguisher to move around in zero gravity. When asked if this was a realistic use of the device, astronaut Roberta Clark confirmed that it was totally possible (and totally awesome).
2. The Shipwreck in The Little Mermaid: At the beginning of the film, we follow Ariel as she explores a sunken ship. According to a maritime expert at Texas A&M University, both the build of the ship – a Spanish galleon – and the timeline at which it deteriorated, were completely accurate.
3. Elsa’s Iciness in Frozen: Ice-queen powers aside, the real reason Elsa was always so cold in the film could’ve been due to her social isolation. Studies have found that social exclusion and loneliness may actually cause a person to feel colder than those who interact often with others.
I guess the cold did bother her…
4. Roar Practice in The Lion King: While it may have seemed silly for Simba to work on his roar, the slight variations in a lion’s vocalization can mean the difference between a simple greeting and a challenge for dominance.
No wonder Simba had to work so hard to make sure his roar was just right!
5. Pilot Lingo in The Incredibles: During the scene where Elastigirl flies a plane, she uses real terminology when talking over the radio. Director Brad Bird said that Holly Hunter, who is the voice of Elastigirl, was adamant about learning the proper lingo.
6. Memories in Inside Out: The human mind isn’t full of animated characters, but the film wasn’t too far off in illustrating how memories function. Individual neurons in the brain recall memories in response to audio and visual cues, allowing us to re-experience certain past emotions in the present.
7. Marlin’s Journey in Finding Nemo: It’s safe to say that any parent would swim the ocean to find their lost child, but Marlin’s journey was actually not that uncommon. In reality, baby clownfish will often travel hundreds of miles across the sea to join up with other clownfish.
There’s another slice of life scene in this movie, too. When Marlin and Dory ride the EAC (East Australian Current) alongside the lovable sea turtles, Crush and Squirt, they’re actually mimicking a what lot of fish do in order to travel long distances faster.
8. Chief Tui’s Tattoo in Moana: In Samoan tradition, any man who wanted to be a Matai, or chief, was required to get a pe’a tattoo. This tattoo denotes a man of great importance; it’s no wonder, then, that Moana’s father had one.
9. Kitchen Scenes in Ratatouille: According to a number of French chefs and food experts, the film’s portrayal of life in a high-end restaurant was spot on. Pixar spent time researching sounds and movements in French kitchens to get the film just right.
10. Wasabi’s Plasma Board in Big Hero 6: The board that Wasabi uses to slice paper-thin apples may seem like science fiction, but in reality, this technology is already being used. Many microsurgeries are conducted using tiny plasma needles.
11. Punishment in The Emperor’s New Groove: Being thrown out the window might seem absurd, but it’s actually not. This was a common practice in Incan time, where gruesome punishments discouraged repeat offenders.
Night Howlers in Zootopia: The strange flower that turns animals “savage” in the film is actually based on the autumn crocus. Though it won’t necessarily drive the eater to madness, devouring any part of this flower may cause cardiac arrest in humans, and even deadlier effects in animals.
13. The Ammunition in Pirates of the Caribbean: In The Curse of the Black Pearl, the ammunition fired was based on the kind found on the wreckage of Blackbeard’s ship. According to scholars, pirates would fire glass, metal shards, and even utensils in an effort to preserve an enemy ship for capture.
14. Food Theft in A Bug’s Life: While Hopper and his gang were made out to be the bad guys, there’s another scarier insect: the butterfly. Rather than take food by force, butterfly larvae emit the same scent that ants do, tricking the ants into feeding and caring for them.
15. The Beasts in Hercules: The enemies Hercules defeats during the “Zero to Hero” montage are taken straight from the mythical figure’s 12 Labors. In the film, Hercules conquers the Nemean Lion, the Erymanthean Boar, and the Stymphlaian Birds.
16. Go Go’s Maglev Disks in Big Hero 6: Another true-to-life gadget used by one of the film’s heroes are these disks, whose technology is already being implemented by Japan’s frictionless maglev train. In the U.S., a train like this could travel from New York to Los Angeles in just seven hours!
17. The Biscuits in Brave: Pixar is known for its attention to even the smallest of details, and in this film, even the biscuits that Merida and her brothers try to steal are historically accurate. Known as Tipperary biscuits, these traditional Scottish sweets are made with spice, strawberry jam, and a cherry on top.
18. White Tunics in The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Those who committed crimes in Medieval Europe could “claim sanctuary” by staying with a church in order to avoid prosecution. To indicate their sanctuary status, the criminal would dress in a simple tunic with no hat or shoes, much like Phoebus and Esmerelda did at the end of the film.
19. Percy in Pocahontas: No, Percy wasn’t a real dog, but it was pretty common for nobles of the Victorian Era to carry around their pooches. At the time, parading a dog around like Governor Ratcliff did with Percy was considered to be a visible demonstration of man’s dominion over nature.