I've long held that nostalgia is a dangerous thing. I was a huge Wood Woodpecker fan when I was a kid, so I was pretty excited by the idea of the 3-disc, seventy-five cartoon The Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection. It would be a chance for me to go back and look at something that brought me a lot of joy when I was just a wee lad.
Let's face it, time moves fast. Before you know it, it can be several years--even decades--between viewings of any particular film or TV show. I don't know when the last time I saw one of Walter Lantz's Universal Cartunes. When I was young, I devoured every cartoon that I could get my hands on, and I think I always sensed a differentness (which isn't the same as "difference") about the Woody Woodpecker crew. The logo was obviously distinctive from the studios that were considered to be the big shots, Warner Bros. and Disney, and the MGM shorts tended to fall into the Warner catalogue by then, meaning syndicated shows put Bugs Bunny next to Tom and Jerry. Woody Woodpecker was something I had discovered later, after my family had moved from Michigan to California. Woody somehow embodied that new life for me.
The woodpecker also appealed to the obnoxious little brother side of my personality. As I am sure many children before and since have done, I annoyed just about everyone with his trademark laugh. It was a matter of the build-up, the slow but shorter three early laughs and then the machine-gun finish. It may have been as simple as that, that I could imitate Woody Woodpecker in a way I couldn't do with my other favorites (I was a Duck man--both Daffy and Donald). Woody and I were simpatico.
Cut ahead to now, and imagine my sinking surprise at watching the first DVD in The Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection and having a very negative reaction to it. I wasn't laughing, I was less than thrilled with the animation, and worst of all, I was bored. What happened to all those fantastic 'toons I watched back in the day?
Oh, the sting of nostalgia. It had gotten me again! Some memories are better left as memories.
Woody Woodpecker made his debut in 1940, in the theatrical Andy Panda short "Knock Knock" (all the cartoons on The Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection were originally shown as lead-ins for movies and not created for television). In this piece, he was the supporting character. Not quite the villain, but the antagonist that winds the nerves of Andy and his father. He's zippy, loud, and tenacious--the sort of qualities we tend to remember Woody Woodpecker for. The bird's antics must have struck a chord, because by the summer of 1941, he jumped into his own self-titled short subject.
DVD 1 takes us from that first 1940 Andy Panda 'toon and on through half of 1945. The first ten solo shorts here are very problematic. Woody comes off as super derivative, an attempt to get the wiseacre attitude of Bugs Bunny and fuse it with the nuttiness of Daffy Duck (with even a little pre-Screwy Squirrel genuine insanity). The biggest stumbling block, though, is that Woody Woodpecker is neither of those characters, nor is he even really himself as of yet. His personality model is all over the map, as is his visual model. He has a different villain in just about every cartoon, sometimes going against a human, sometimes some kind of animal dressed in clothes. He is a matador, he battles a loan shark (or, as it were, loan wolf), and he even performs the Barber of Seville six years before Chuck Jones cast Bugs in the role. There just isn't any sense of a solid character, and for as developmental as Woody is, so is the Lantz Cartune style. The look of the shorts is inconsistent, and the films lack any kineticism. Woody is meant to move with speed, but the actual animation is slow. Furthermore, the gags are tired, and there is no subtext or commentary like we might expect from the best of the Looney Tunes.
Things start to come together for Lantz and his bird with 1944's "The Beach Nut." Woody's design starts to get sleeker, his beak and the tuft of red feathers on top of his head both grow longer, and he gets his first real dueling partner, the Swedish-accented Wally Walrus. Here the unstoppable prankster begins to take over. Woody Woodpecker is a force of nature who carries on with little regard to the rest of the world, and the rest of the world has no choice but to react. (Tragically, "The Beach Nut" has one of the worst transfers on The Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection. It's overly dark with faded colors and lots of surface scratches.)
Unfortunately, this is not so much an upward trend as it is a momentary bright spot. DVD 2 is pretty much business as usual, carrying on with the same dopey gag fests, full of inconsistent animation ("The Loose Nut," for instance, is a strong example where the character is regularly off-model) and even recycled plots ("Who's Cookin' Who?" is nearly interchangeable with disc 1's "Pantry Panic;" "The Reckless Driver" resembles "The Screwdriver"). The bottom line, though, is the bird lacks charm. Woody may be an "unstoppable prankster," but he is missing that X-factor that makes me want to root for him. He is never really the hero. He stands for nothing but himself, unlike say how Bugs Bunny becomes a symbol of defusing stuffy and wrong-headed authority and bullies. In fact, it's actually pretty cathartic when things shift in 1947 and in a spate of cartoons, starting with "Smoked Hams," Woody begins to lose to Wally and finds the world is capable of getting the better of him (the sleepless night of "The Coo-Coo Bird").
It's even telling that one of the best cartoons of the bunch is "Musical Moments from Chopin." Centered on a piano duel between Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda, this short benefits from being less about the main characters and more about the various whackoes in the audience. Lessen the beaked one's prominence, get a better cartoon.
DVD 3 rounds out the collection by continuing the pattern of push-pull, of making up with me and then abusing me all over again. The lead cartoon, "Wet Blanket Policy," introduces new villain Buzz Buzzard, and for the rest of 1948 and into 1949, we actually get an oasis in this desert of unfunny. The series gets stronger in the animation department, and Woody enters his final phase looks-wise, getting rounder, more cuddly. Fourth cartoon on the disc, though, "Puny Express," jumps us into 1951, and by this point we're at a new low. The cartooning is starting to shift toward the more limited animation we'd expect from television: less detail, more hackneyed gags, and even an attempt to make Woody a hero. His run-ins with Buzz, often in Western settings, are designed to show him taking down a bad guy rather than just being a pest. Yet, haven't we been in this cycle before? I feel like a broken record. DVD 3 even has yet another variation on the Grasshopper and the Ant, late '51's "The Redwood Sap."
Three-quarters of the way into this Woody period we are handed what surely should be the death knell of any series: "Born to Peck" shows Woody Woodpecker as a hyperactive baby. (One can't help but think of Patton Oswalt's Star Wars rant on his new CD, Werewolves and Lollipops. "Do you like Woody Woodpecker? Well, in this cartoon, you get to see him as a little kid.") The short ends with Old Man Woody leaping into an awaiting grave, only to have the animator's hand reach in, erase the grave, and draw in the Fountain of Youth. Bathing in the Fountain's life-giving water, the senior-citizen woodpecker arises young and strong. We're supposed to cheer at our favorite heckler being spared for much more comedy to come, but alas, rather than lamenting his passing, we're just left to lament his failure to go away. A groan, a look at the DVD box, and the realization that we've many cartoons to go before any of us takes the big sleep.
In addition to the Woody Woodpecker cartoons, each DVD on The Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection is rounded out with various other features from the Lantz vault. DVD 1 has five of the "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" shorts that Lantz' studio did before Woody, dating 1930 to 1933. These are quite primitive black-and-white films, charming for their simple style and historically neat for their impressive visual whimsy.
Both DVD 1 and DVD 3 have five "Cartune Classics," short animated features with no connection to the greater franchise characters, but random subjects, a la Disney's "Silly Symphonies." In fact, DVD 2 has five cartoons from Universal's similarly styled "Swing Symphonies" series. These were all produced from 1941 to 1955, and they range from parody shorts like "King Kluck" (starring Pooch the Pup) to music-driven cartoons like "$21 A Day (Once A Month)" or "The Pied Piper of Basin Street." There are also a number of pieces that trot out a parade of Hollywood caricatures and even a quick run of gags relating to the "Hysterical Highspots of American History." Some of these are funny, but some aren't. It's all over the map. One of my favorite segments is in "Abou Ben Boogie," when the dancer Abou Ben is painted with all white outlines. It's a simple effect that adds a lot to the sensation of true, yet exaggerated, movement.
The other added collections, the "& Friends" of the set title, are the five Andy Panda cartoons on DVD 2 (spanning 1930 to 1949) and the five Chilly Willy ones on DVD 3 (1953-1956). I found Andy Panda aged well. Despite the rough beginnings of 1939's "Life Begins for Andy Panda," complete with the racist depiction of pygmy panda hunters, the character he eventually becomes is one of a sweet, though often oblivious, bumbler. The final three in the Andy set--"Apple Andy" with its apple-themed vision of Hell, the all-musical "The Bandmaster," and "Scrappy Birthday"--are all shorts I remember vividly from my youth, and they are still entertaining today.
Of the Chilly Willy 'toons, two are directed by legendary animation man Tex Avery. He brings his usual sense of humor to the proceedings, even if the jokes don't fly at the frenetic pace he established over at MGM; nevertheless, the stories of the penguin who hated the cold are a highlight of the boxed set. Outside of the character's formative debut, the remaining Chilly Willies, directed by Alex Lovy, maintain the same whimsy. They are reminiscent of Avery's later Droopy cartoons where the sadsack hound is on the run from the wolf with the southern drawl (the same voice actor even voices the canine antagonist here). The formula works. These are funny. On the same tack, DVD 3's "Cartune Classics" also has two films written and directed by Avery: "Crazy Mixed Up Pup," in which a dog and its owner accidentally get their plasma switched and trade behavior, and "Sh-h-h-h-h-h," in which a man with a nervous condition tries to avoid all noise in order not to blow up.
The full list of cartoons on DVD 1:
Knock Knock * Woody Woodpecker * The Screwdriver * Pantry Panic * The Hollywood Matador * Ace in the Hole * The Loan Stranger * The Screwball * The Dizzy Acrobat * Ration Bored * The Barber of Seville * The Beach Nut * Ski for Two * Chew-Chew Baby * Woody Dines Out
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: Hell's Heels * Spooks * Grandma's Pet * Confidence * Merry Old Soul
Cartune Classics: King Kluck * Toyland Premiere * Hollywood Bowl * Scrambled Eggs * Hysterical Highspots in American History
The full list of cartoons on DVD 2:
The Dippy Diplomat * The Loose Nut * Who's Cookin' Who? * Bathing Buddies * The Reckless Driver * Fair Weather Fiends * Musical Moments from Chopin * Smoked Hams * The Coo-Coo Bird * Well Oiled * Solid Ivory * Woody the Giant Killer * The Mad Hatter * Banquet Busters * Wacky-Bye Baby
Andy Panda: Life Begins for Andy Panda * Fish Fry * Apple Andy * The Bandmaster * Scrappy Birthday
Swing Symphonies: $21 a Day (Once a Month) * Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy! * The Greatest Man in Siam * Abou Ben Boogie * The Pied Piper of Basin Street
The full list of cartoons on DVD 3:
Wet Blanket Policy * Wild and Woody * Drooler's Delight * Puny Express * Sleep Happy * Wicket Wacky * Slingshot 6 7/8 * The Redwood Sap * The Woody Woodpecker Polka * Destination Meatball * Born to Peck * Stage Hoax * Woodpecker in the Rough * Scalp Treatment * The Great Who-Dood-It
Chilly Willy: Chilly Willy * I'm Cold * The Legend of Rockabye Point * Hot and Cold Penguin * Room and Wrath
Cartune Classics: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company 'B' * Mother Goose on the Loose * Pigeon Patrol * Crazy Mixed Up Pup * Sh-h-h-h-h-h
Typing in the punny titles of these many cartoons, I started to get a better inkling of where maybe Walter Lantz failed and his contemporaries succeeded. Animation historians tell us that the Warner Bros. gang and the guys over at MGM made their cartoons with adult males as their intended audience. This meant animation that adults could enjoy and that would also make kids laugh without insulting them or talking down to them. When you hear a lame title like "Destination Meatball" and see the low-level jokes Lantz and crew trot out for their bird's assault on a butcher shop, it starts to become clear that maybe Universal didn't understand how to appeal to a wider audience. They wanted to get kids on board, and they didn't think much of what that might require. Thus, we get the plethora of cartoons here, ranging from boring to stupid, and rarely ever funny.
Frankly, the child in me is insulted. And also a little horrified that I was ever that dumb.
NOTE: These discs reportedly contain "uncut" theatrical versions of these shorts, and I didn't notice any shocking editing or spots that felt like something was missing. There are some racial stereotypes that pop up, like Woody pretending to be Chinese in an early cartoon or the Native American who comes in for a haircut in "The Barber of Seville" (not to mention the Native American-themed "Scalp Treatment"). These are relatively tame given some of the levels of racial prejudice that Hollywood was capable of. In actuality, more of this shows up in the supplemental cartoons, which play much more on stereotypes and caricatures popular in the time period. Some of them are war-themed (including the most offensive of the lot, the "jazzy" "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company 'B'"), and some of the musical cartoons take place in foreign lands. I prefer that we see these as they were originally done, but consider this your fair warning if you fear you'll be offended.
All of the cartoons on The Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection are full screen, and the image quality of the shorts is all over the map. Though the marketing copy boasts of "all-new digital transfers," one must ask what that even means. Presumably just dumping them to DVD is a digital process, and though there is no artifacting or other errors that are common to badly manufactured DVDs, one can only assume that these shorts were put on disc in whatever state their particular masters were in. The shows are sometimes fuzzy, colors get faded and spotty, and there is dirt and noise all over the place. All of the cartoons are watchable, and most of them are at least passable, but a few, like "The Beach Nut" and "Ski for Two," are pretty rough looking. Some of the flaws could be in the animation, but some are just laziness. Things do improve, however, by DVD 3. The later the cartoon in the chronology, the better the print.
Conversely, I didn't encounter much by way of audio screw-ups. Basic mono mixes, but with decent levels. Subtitles are available in Spanish, French, and English for the hearing impaired.
Each DVD gets a supplemental feature or two to round out the package and give us some background on the creation of the Cartunes. In a similar vein, the foldable case has two sections of notes about the shorts and their producer, as well as illustrated lists of what cartoons are on each disc. The outer slipcase is really nicely designed, with sparingly used die-cut effects and embossing.
DVD 1 has two features, with a vintage short about the creation of Oswald the Rabbit cartoons called "Cartoonland Mysteries" (10 minutes, 50 seconds) being the best. It is a step-by-step look at how an animated short is made. There is also a later promotional program called "Walter, Woody, and the World of Animation" (13:45) that goes over the history of Lantz and shows clips from some of his earliest cartoons. It follows up through the creation and popularity of Woody, and would be much better without the poorly acted and badly animated sequences of the animator and the character interacting. Still, neat to see footage of the man himself.
DVD 2 has six similar segments taken from the Woody Woodpecker Show TV series. Strung together, they run about 23 minutes, and they are similar to how Walt Disney introduced his shows. In these, Lantz discusses the background of the series, including lessons on how to draw Andy and Woody and tracing the evolution of the look of his main character.
DVD 3 has a 23-minute Halloween episode of The Woody Woodpecker Show that includes old shorts and the only cartoon created specifically for the TV series, "Spook-a-Nanny." Oddly, the credits and interstitial elements with Lantz hosting are in black-and-white here.
Listen, no one is more upset about this review than me. I campaigned to review The Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, and I had no inkling I would ever find myself typing the words Skip It in relation to this 3-DVD set. Having spent my formative years devouring as many cartoons as my TV would give me, I recall Woody Woodpecker being one of my favorite characters. In my mind, he was an anarchic, irrepressible prankster that twiddled his beak at social mores. Or, that's how my brain had cast him in the years between watching his antics regularly and just remembering them. What I am faced with in the present is not at all what I remembered, but instead shoddily animated, limp cash-ins on the successes of other cartoon studios. And almost nine hours of it. That's more than a full day's work, folks, and I paid for every minute.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.