09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Soundlessly, Little Red Riding Hood zips off to grandma's house. Accustomed to the high-tech wizardry of Mulan, a viewer may find the flickering cartoon primitive. But to David Wyatt it's a precious piece of movie history—the earliest known Walt Disney animation—that he rescued from oblivion. A London film editor and researcher, Wyatt, 40, unknowingly bought the seven-minute Little Red Riding Hood 20 years ago. "I didn't think it was anything that special," he says. "It was just, 'Here's another not terribly good cartoon.' "
The son of a shopkeeper and a homemaker, Wyatt, who is single, began collecting silent films when he was 10. At a liquidation sale in 1978, he says, "I didn't have the money to buy all the films I wanted—or a car to bring them home." Still, he did nab Granny Steps Out, which turned out to be the title given by a British distributor to Little Red Riding Hood, a cartoon Disney, then 21, drew in 1922. Disney soon lost rights to it after declaring bankruptcy, and the film, presumed lost, was soon forgotten.
In 1996, after reading an interview with Wyatt in a history of Disney's early work, Scott McQueen, head of restoration at Disney, realized that Wyatt owned a gem. He contacted him and, in exchange for a restored 35-mm version of the cartoon, got to make a duplicate negative for the archives. "We'll make sure," promises McQueen, "that Little Red Riding Hood won't get lost again."