Nearly 95% of Disney’s Irreplaceable Classic Animation Materials Completely Destroyed

sorcerer mickey
Credit: Walt Disney Animation

The Walt Disney Company recently faced the loss of its rights to the first version of Mickey Mouse, bringing an end to a nearly 100-year copyright on the most recognizable fictional character in history. Now, in its 101st year, the company has lost not only its initial claim to fame in Steamboat Willie, but almost all of its classic animation material as well–material that cannot be replaced.

snow white

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Farewell to Steamboat Willie

As news of the impending date of Mickey’s demise began to find its way back into the spotlight in 2021, all eyes were on The Walt Disney Company as heartbroken fans who couldn’t fathom any iteration of Walt’s beloved mouse stepping outside the house of Disney waited to see what the entertainment giant would pull out from its sleeve in order to bypass the January 1, 2024 expiration date on Mickey’s copyright.

However, unlike what the company had done in the past, Disney instead stood silent, making no obvious move to avert the looming deadline.

mickey mouse steamboat willie

“Steamboat Willie”/Credit: Walt Disney Animation

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The earliest iteration of Mickey Mouse, created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks in 1928, entered the public domain on January 1, 2024, forever ending a 96-year-long copyright held by The Walt Disney Company that began with the debut of the first-ever cartoon in history to feature sound, Steamboat Willie. The chipper little mouse named Mickey danced onto the big screen–and into the hearts of fans–in late 1928, but he would face other “dances” along his journey as well.

Mickey had danced on the horizon of the public domain’s point of no return before–facing the expiration of Disney’s rights to the beloved rodent twice since the late 1920s. Both times, however, Disney was able to avert certain catastrophe in the animation industry, first by accepting the federal government’s provision for an automatic extension of rights and second, by lobbying Congress to change copyright laws in the United States to serve its interests in the 1980s.

mickey mouse in a courtroom with lawyers

Credit: Mike Tadasco via MidJourney AI

The company that created Mickey wasted no time in calling on the federal government to help in the effort to save the world’s favorite animated character from the depths and darkness of the public domain.

Whether federal lawmakers revered Disney as an untouchable entertainment powerhouse or the American people had recently elected a Congress comprised of diehard Mickey Mouse fans, we’ll never know, but Congress happily (and magically) extended Disney’s copyright by enacting the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” or, as it is more formally known, the Copyright Term Extension Act.

steamboat willie

“Steamboat Willie”/Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Not so, however, in January of this year, as Steamboat Willie sailed away one final time into the unknown public domain. Though Disney retains its trademark on Mickey, the copyright on Steamboat Willie is but a vapor now . . .

A Near-Complete Loss of a Different Kind

While Disney was blessed with two opportunities to stay off the impending loss of Mickey Mouse, they were not so lucky in a situation that resulted in a much further-reaching loss of the company’s intellectual property.

It was a significant loss that took place years ago–one that never saw the light of day across the nation’s headlines. The tragedy of the loss was compounded by the fact that it was the blame for the loss could only be laid at the feet of Disney’s very own animators.

disney's nine old men original animators

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

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In the early days of Walt Disney Animation, Walt’s very capable and talented animators could only use their hands to physically draw the characters in Disney’s beloved classic animated films. And they did so with unmatched determination and dedication.

In fact, Disney’s animators in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed the work they were doing, despite the tediousness and long hours demanded of hand-drawn animation. The animation process was extremely labor-intensive, but for Disney’s animators, it was simply what they did. After all, there were no “computer-generated images” in those days.

bambi disney live-action

Credit: Disney

Carefree and Careless Animators Cost Disney Its Legacy

But the animators reportedly felt not only carefree in the love of their work–but sometimes careless as well, and the fragile vintage art they were creating didn’t always get the protection it deserved.

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 were often accustomed to tossing completed canvases on the floor of the studio. Many of the canvases were even shuffled along the floor, destroying the beloved Disney art that was on them.

disney's fox and the hound

Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound” (1980)/Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Why did they do it? No one really knows, but it wasn’t with the intention to destroy Disney’s animation material. Perhaps it was a team-building activity . . . no one knows for sure.

But even if the practice was key to unifying Disney’s team of animators, the same could not be said for the artwork itself, as the practice was utterly destructive to the artwork that was so painstakingly created.

An Enormous Loss From Which Recovery Isn’t Possible

Sadly, the destruction didn’t stop there. Over the years, the carelessness of some of Disney’s most talented and genius animators ultimately resulted in the loss of almost all of Disney’s vintage animation material–95% of it, to be exact. And what makes the loss so devastating is that recovery of the vintage artwork is not possible.


Credit: Walt Disney Animation

So, in an effort to prevent further destruction and losses, Disney now employs preservation techniques to preserve the materials that remain–the 5% that was not destroyed. Disney’s goal is to lower the risk of further damage and the complete 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!

One comment

  1. I do not agree that the type of animation such as Bluey can blend in with original Disney classic. It distracts and makes it look as if Disney lost the fabled technique of its past. Mr. Disney would not have permitted it.

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