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Disney Loses Nearly 95% of Its Classic Animation Material

disney's sorcerer's apprentice and disney's nine old men
Credit: Walt Disney Animation/Canva

As the year 2024 draws closer, Disney fans have become increasingly vocal and concerned about The Walt Disney Company losing the rights to Mickey Mouse. But Disney has already lost almost 95% of the classic animation material from its feature films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi, and no amount of lobbying Congress could have stopped the loss.

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Fantasia nearly sunk Disney animation, but Dumbo helped rescue it - Polygon

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940)/Credit: Walt Disney Animation

One of the earliest versions of Disney’s Mickey Mouse is set to enter the public domain on January 1, 2024, ending a 96-year-long copyright held by the entertainment giant since Mickey’s first cartoon, Steamboat Willie, debuted in 1928. At that time, Mickey’s copyright was valid for 28 years, with the option for Disney to extend it for an additional 28 years, meaning that the original copyright for the Steamboat Willie character was set to enter the public domain at the end of 1983. Facing a loss of ownership, Disney sprang into action to save the beloved mouse from life outside The Walt Disney Company.

Disney wasted no time, bypassing any potential riff-raff and going directly to the United States government for help, lobbying Congress in an effort to hold on to Mickey a little longer. Whether federal lawmakers revered Disney as an untouchable entertainment powerhouse or the American people had elected a Congress full of Mickey fans, we’ll never know, but Congress happily extended Disney’s copyright by enacting the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” or, as it is formally known, the Copyright Term Extension Act.

Mickey Mouse's Copyright To Expire and Mickey will be Public Domain

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Copyrights don’t last forever, though, and when the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2024, Disney will be forced to say farewell to Steamboat Willie–though his trademark will remain.

But while there may still be some measure of hope for Mickey, there’s no hope for a loss of Disney property that has already occurred–one that never made the headlines as Steamboat Willie did. The Walt Disney Company has already suffered a tragic loss of some of its intellectual property, and the company has no one to blame but its very own animators.

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disney's nine old men original animators

Animators and Innovators: Disney’s Original “Nine Old Men”/Credit: Walt Disney Archives

In the 1930s and 1940s, when Walt Disney’s animators were tasked with hand-drawing the characters and backgrounds for some of the studio’s most beloved animated films, they embraced their work with great passion and dedication. They apparently enjoyed their work and had lots of fun on the clock. Back then, hand-drawn animation was a lengthy, labor-intensive process, but it was business as usual for those in that line of work. Because of this, animators were often very carefree–and sometimes careless–when it came to the fragile vintage art they were creating.

Arthur Stevens, a long-time Disney animator and director who worked on classic Disney animated films The Rescuers (1977), The Fox and the Hound (1981), and The Black Cauldron (1985), once explained that animators used to toss finished animation canvases on the floor when they were finished with them. Some animators even used the canvases to slide around on the floors. While the practice might have been good for team-building, it was entirely destructive for the artwork itself.

disney animation cel

Signs of cellulose plastic deterioration can be seen in this cel from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)/Credit: Walt Disney Animation

It created multiple problems for the studio as well. Over the years, the carelessness of Disney’s animators resulted in the loss of nearly 95% of Disney’s vintage animation material–a loss from which recovery is not possible. In an effort to prevent further losses, experts now employ preservation techniques to care for the remaining material. The goal is to lower the risk of further damage and loss of Disney’s treasured and priceless artwork.

Fortunately for Disney fans of every age, all of the films for which the animation material was lost are still available in some physical and digital formats and can be streamed on the Disney+ platform.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!