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Cartoon Showtime! Cartoon Showtime! Here Comes Woody!
The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection: Volume 2 continues collecting the classic '50s and '60s cartoon shorts starring the legendary cartoon character, as well other characters created by Woody creator Walter Lantz. For classic animation fans, this set is a worthy purchase.
Facts of the Case
Here are the cartoons collected on this three-disc set:
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Though Woody Woodpecker is a well-known cultural icon, his cartoons have never quite gotten the ultra-hip cachet enjoyed by Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, or Tex Avery's work, nor are they as respected as Walt Disney's oeuvre. One reason is that Woody's creator and producer, Walter Lantz, was always cheerfully honest about his sometimes mercenary ways. He was interested in making cartoons that made money and were popular and, unlike Avery, Robert Clampett, or Chuck Jones, never once assumed the mantle of tortured artiste.
This characterization is somewhat true, but misses the point. Yes, Lantz was a businessman, but unlike Warner Brothers' Leon Schlesinger or MGM's Fred Quimby, he actually liked and cared about cartoons. He was astute enough to understand that having talented people around made for better cartoons that were easier to sell. At various times in his career, Lantz employed such titans as legendary Looney Tunes writers Michael Maltese and Ben "Bugs" Hardaway and even Avery himself. Lantz was a fair employer who treated his directors and animators with respect and allowed them the freedom to make their cartoons unencumbered. This resulted in some of the best and sometimes most underrated cartoons of the era.
Though all five of the cartoons Avery directed for Lantz were collected on The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection (Volume 1), there's no shortage of gems here. Maltese is credited as a writer on several here, and the best, like "Real Gone Woody" and "Square Shootin' Square," are at least the equal of some of his Warner Brothers work. "Real Gone Woody," in which swinging '50s hipster Woody fights crew-cut jock Buzz Buzzard for the affections of bobbysoxer Winnie Woodpecker is a mini-masterpiece. Similarly, the Western "Square Shootin' Square" is on par with any of Bugs Bunny's run-ins with Yosemite Sam. Maltese even reprises one of his most famous gags: a villain runs off in the distance, explodes, and then returns to whisper "I-i-i-i hate you!" to the hero.
Disc One of this set compiles almost all of the Woody cartoons directed by Don Patterson, and makes a convincing case that Patterson deserves to be as recognized as an animation talent as worthy as Avery or Clampett. Many of these cartoons are startlingly raucous and funny. "Termites from Mars" and "Wrestling Wrecks" in particular are every bit as anarchic, even surreal, as the best of Avery's work (and, in fact, surpass some of Avery's efforts for Lantz). Lantz deserves credit for finding a talent like Patterson and giving him the freedom to run wild creatively.
The bulk of the Woody cartoons on Disc Two, and most on Disc Three, were directed by Lantz veteran Paul Smith, and are also enjoyable, if not quite up to the standard set by Patterson. None of them are unwatchable, and even the weakest have moments of wit and cleverness. They just feel like a bit of a comedown after the exhilarating blast of energy that is present on Disc One. Also, these introduce plenty of new characters, like the hulking cowboy Dooley, the loudmouth bear Windy, and Woody's nephew Splinter and niece Knothead. Though their appearances are enjoyable enough, none are nearly as memorable as Woody himself. "Get Lost" and "Red Riding Hoodlum," in which Woody only plays a supporting role to the kids, are the weakest of the Woody cartoons. It's Woody we really want to see. Fortunately, most of the rest are pure Woody. Once again, Lantz's abilities as a creator and producer are shown to advantage; the cartoons' quality, apart from a few clinkers here and there, is generally consistent, even with different writers and, on a few cartoons, another director, Alex Lovy. Plus, unlike some of Lantz' other cartoon stars, Woody is endearing and likable enough that he makes even the blandest cartoons here agreeable.
The set contains many other cartoons from the Lantz studios, and those are a mixed bag. Cartune Costars compiles some '50s one-shots and is the best of the non-Woody batches. The Maltese-Smith "A Horse's Tale," in which a farm horse becomes the stunt double for a prima-donna Hollywood star, is a worthy classic, and the others are almost as good. Musical Favorites, which compiles some music-based shorts from the '40s, is also enjoyable, with jazzy music mixed with clever ideas and nice animation. They also show the best of Hardaway's work for Lantz, and his gags add extra punch to the already lively music. The '30s cartoons collected on Disc One, on the other hand, are all awfully cutesy and twee. Though they have some great music and nice animation, they're little more than period pieces and can be skipped with no ill effects. Only the Oswald cartoon "Puppet Show," which blends animation with film footage of marionettes, is noteworthy, and even then contains some racist segments that will leave many viewers cold.
The more well-known characters don't fare so well, either. Andy Panda is little more than a pale imitation of Mickey Mouse, right down to the red pants, orange dog, and squeaky voice. His cartoons range from the mediocre to the awful, and are all weak Disney rewrites. In fact, "The Poet & Peasant" is just a shameless rip-off of the classic Mickey Mouse short "The Band Concert." Chilly Willy, the penguin with the little puffball cap and scarf, was always one of Lantz's favorite characters, but it's hard to understand why. He's undoubtedly cute but he has no personality and his cartoons are repetitive and formulaic. The plot for all of them is simple: Chilly is hungry, but has no money for food. Chaos ensues. If you've seen one, you've seen them all, so pick one (any one, they're all the same) and skip the rest.
The full-screen transfer of these cartoons is variable. Some look fine, others look somewhat more worn and grainy. The cartoons were all remastered for this set, but given that the newest material here is still nearly forty years old, it's just not always going to look crystal clear. The mono mix is clear enough, though.
As for extras, all are from The Woody Woodpecker Show, which aired on TV in the '60s and '70s. "Behind the Scenes with Walter Lantz," compiled on Discs One and Two, consist of brief blurbs in which Lantz explains various aspects of the animation process, from inking cels to storyboarding. These are interesting looks at a time in animation that's long gone, probably (and sadly) for good. Be warned that the video quality on these isn't great, with frequent scratches and skips throughout. Disc Two adds two shorts that premiered on the show that served as pilots for other shows. "The Secret Weapon" (starring Space Mouse) and "Jungle Medics" (starring Sam 'n Simian) are both by far the worst shorts in this set, rife with shoddy animation, awful jokes, silly plots, and even some ugly racist caricatures. Disc Three adds a complete episode of the show from 1970, and anyone who was a child during that era and grew up watching the show will practically know all the announcements and bumpers by heart.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The packaging states bluntly that this set is intended for adult collectors and not children, and while that seems a bit extreme, it's not entirely unwarranted. Some of these are violent in the most shocking way possible. In particular, the Andy Panda short "The Painter and the Pointer" contains an extended (and unfunny) sequence where Andy ties his dog to a pole with a shotgun aimed squarely at the dog's head. That's not to mention some of the racial and ethnic caricatures, especially in the older '30s cartoons. There are not more than a dozen or so cartoons here that could be considered possibly offensive, but it's still necessary to emphasize that parents who want to introduce their kids to Woody Woodpecker should preview this set in its entirety and practice some judicious editing.
There are more than enough funny and clever cartoons here to justify purchasing this set. Don't feel that you have to own Volume 1 before getting this one, as either one is a great introduction to Woody if you are not familiar with or have forgotten his cartoons.
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Scales of Justice
• Behind the Scenes with Walter Lantz
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