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Woody Woodpecker and Friends
Right across the street from the El Capitan, the official theatre of a different Walt, is the Mann Chinese 6 Theatre, which was were we caught a tribute to Walter Lantz's most foul fowl, Woody Woodpecker. Sure he's often compared to Bugs Bunny, and Mel Blanc's iconic voice has cemented that, but our fiery bird has his roots in another rabbit, named, Oswald. Before there was a Mickey Mouse, there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and when Walt Disney felt that he and his crew weren't getting enough money from Universal Pictures producer's Charles Mintz and George Winkle, he left to create another muse with big ears. This left a vacuum that young intern Lantz was only too happy to fill. Oswald led to Andy Panda, which led to Woody's guest-spot in that lovable bear's film Knock Knock. The woodpecker saw opportunity knocking, refusing any notion of a cameo, but instead hogging the spotlight. Like Mork from Ork's egg landing on Happy Days, Woody's a hatchling that had spin-off written all over him.

Oswald and Andy both make appearances in Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Collection DVD, which is being released by Universal Studios Home Entertainment. They set up a panel of some very special guests in order to give proper word to the bird, players like: Phil Roman (old-school Disney animator and producer of shows like , King of the Hill, and The Simpson's), Maurice LaMarche (behind voices like Pepe Le Pew, and Yosemite Sam), Animation historian and film critic, Leonard Maltin, June Foray ("the Queen of Cartoon Voices"), and the voice of The New Woody Woodpecker Show, Billy West. There was stories galore, and Foray, who had also done Woody's voice, pulled out some of her signatures from Rocky & Bullwinkle . LaMarche whipped out a hilarious Toucan Sam, and Billie West deconstructed the "three voices of Popeye," explaining how he figured out the way to get several tones out of his throat at once. West also played Bugs Bunny in Space Jam, and after going doing a little bit of him, admitted that whether he's doing the famous hare or the famous bird, he's does them both by channeling Mel Blanc.

Leonard Maltin did what he does best; geek-out beyond comprehension. A living encyclopedia of animation, he effectively set the mood and climate of a Hollywood with two Walt's on the rise, and he was even better than the emcee, Gordan Myers, at extracting gems from Foray. It remains something of a chicken-and-egg scenario when it comes to the story behind Woody's maniacal laugh. Did he do his, "Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha's" to the cadence in George Tibbles' and Ramey Idriess' music as June Foray recalls, or did they make the music according to his laugh as has been accounted elsewhere?

The screening began with an appearance from Walter Lantz himself, almost. When the Woody Woodpecker Show made its television debut on ABC in 1957, Lantz would conclude the episode with a little history lesson on animation. With his red rascal helping him out, it's very much like the footage of Walt and Mickey. Now maybe Woody wasn't as surreal as some of Max Fleischer's stuff, but our hero tested the notions of sanity, in fact, he was probably some sort of sociopath. As in the case of his first appearance in Knock Knock, Woody just comes waltzing in and pesters Andy Panda and his Papa; he eventually gets taken away, ha-ha, but not before driving everyone mad.

Lantz's "cartunes" did get pretty trippy, however, even if the intent was innocent and patriotic, as it was with Oswald's Confidence from 1933. The black and white film was animated by Bill Nolan (who would later work for Max Fleischer), and dealt with the grim subject of the depression. After witnessing too much hunger and suffering on his farm, Oswald makes his trek to Washington D.C. and gets a great pep talk from a walking-strong F.D.R. Billie West made an interesting comment about the toons of this period, when noted how the characters had a certain jazzy bounce; from Popeye to Oswald to Fitz the Dog, they all had mojo, and it's something that Woody and Bugs both borrowed from time to time.

For the most part you would just think that Woody was just a snuffed-up slaphappy jokester, not caring who he offended (though he kept it clean for the kids), just as long as he got his way, and for the most part you'd be right. The concept of political correctness wasn't as ubiquitous as it is today, so even while you laugh, you've got to cringe at some of the gags in the Barber of Seville. From 1944, Woody walks in to get a haircut from his favorite barber, Tony Figaro, but takes matters into his own hands when he's not around. "I cut my teeth, I can cut my hair," says an impatient Woody as he starts to experiment with styles ("Looks like Veronica Lake!"). When a Native American comes walking in for a trim, Woody has no problem taking on the client. "OK, Turkeyhead," Woody teases about the headdress, before using the man's "red" face to toast his white bread. And after getting clocked, even the tweeting birds do a raindance around his head. While some may take offense, it's hysterical and doesn't come off as malicious in any way. In fact, again and again, we learn from our lovable Woody's faux pas (haircuts with a meat cleaver?), and he almost always pays the price for it in the end.

The DVD (we saw about an hour and a half, but there's really about nine hours when you count the extras) was projected onto the large screen, and while it revealed some of the digitization of the source material, the colors popped off the screen, especially in films like Who's Cookin Who? where hard times have Woody and his friend Wolfie Wolf hungry enough to eat each other. Written by Ben Hardaway and animated by Les Kline and Grim Natwick, the colors are so vivid that when the characters desperately grab for the other, you think you're going to get pulled from your seat and into the scene; which wouldn't be so crazy, because like Bugs and Groucho Marx before both of them, Woody loves to break the diagesi to speak with his audience more directly.

As a kid who grew up with Woody Woodpecker like a lot of other kids, everyday as part of a marathon of afterschool cartoons, it was a pleasure to see the batty bird on the big screen the way folks back in the day experienced him. Woody's popularity has gone in and out over the years, but this shiny set proves he's made a secure nest for himself up there with the other toon-titans, and no matter how hard you try, the pesky pecker isn't going anywhere.

- Daniel Siwek


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