Category Archives: classic animation

Pecking Holes in Poles

woody posterThe oddest feature on the DVD of Woody Woodpecker, the newest live-action/CGI animation hybrid based on a classic cartoon character, is a hidden bonus feature: Niagara Fools, one of the better ’50s Woody Woodpecker cartoons, looking nicer here than it did on the 2008 Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Vol. 2. And it’s hidden well—no mention of it anywhere and no chapter stop—so I’m at a loss for its inexplicable inclusion. I say “better” because as most cartoon fans know, cartoons in the theatrical era didn’t get much worse than when the credits read “Directed by Paul J. Smith.” He presided over the last two decades of the Walter Lantz studio’s output and while there were occasional bright spots in the first few years, like Niagara Fools, Smith was an auteur of inept cartoon comedy and crude drawing and animation.

In that respect, Woody Woodpecker lives up to its source material very well. It’s no better or worse than what you’d expect by now in a world that’s birthed Looney Tunes: Back in ActionYogi BearAlvin and the Chipmunks, and whatever other “reprisals” I’m forgetting. You have the paint-by-numbers plot (Woody’s forest faces demolition; the new kid is having trouble with his dad; villains kidnap Woody and his new friends); the bland human leads (although one of the film’s villains, a poacher, is a dead-ringer for Dapper Denver Dooley); and the smattering of fart and shit gags. (As the Chipmunks movie established, coprophagia is now an accepted staple of children’s entertainment. In one scene, Woody defecates on a villain’s ice cream cone, which apparently makes it tastier. It’s the second time Woody shits in the movie.)

The CG animation, done by Cinemotion in Bulgaria, is serviceable even if it’s inappropriate for as manic and elastic a character as the woodpecker to be anything but hand-drawn animated. Woody does at least maintain his anarchic/amoral personality for most of the picture, causing everything from construction site mishaps to gas explosions, which does wear thin over some 80 minutes. If there’s anything redeemable about the movie, it’s that voice actor Eric Bauza did an excellent job recreating the circa ’40s Woody. Pity he wasn’t in every minute of it.

The choice of director Alex Zamm (Inspector Gadget 2Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2) is proof enough that Universal execs had no intention of this being anything more than forgettable cookie-cutter filler for the Wal-Mart and Netflix family sections after it was released in the film’s intended market of Brazil. There, Woody (as “Pica-Pau”) has remained incredibly popular with all ages, and still broadcasts daily, something that obviously can’t be said for the character’s home country. Why intentionally craft a formulaic babysitter movie for a market where the original Woody cartoons are still popular with teens and adults? It’s a missed opportunity, and film reviewers in Brazil have noticed, as exhibited here and here.

Paul Smith fortunately wasn’t the only guy to handle the character. Many fine Woody cartoons came from Shamus Culhane, Dick Lundy, and Don Patterson, as did some great comics from John Stanley, Dan Gormley, and Freddy Milton. Unlike Mighty Mouse or Casper the Friendly Ghost (characters nobody honestly likes but have still been around and known forever), there are real gems to be found in the Woody series and the Lantz cartunes in general (I should know, I co-ran a website devoted to them for many years) and that has inevitably helped the cartoons’ longevity in Brazil. Ergo, a new movie with Woody should celebrate and pay homage to what people liked about the old cartoons—right? Apparently not.

It’s not as though the people that could do the job are hard to reach. Woody Woodpecker gives a “special thanks” credit to David Feiss (Ren & StimpyCow & ChickenI Am Weasel), whose highly recognizable frenetic style would’ve been a perfect match for the character, but there’s no sign of his influence here. Not that the right people being there would’ve probably made a difference. The last reprisal of the Lantz characters in 1998, The New Woody Woodpecker Show, was headed by Ren & Stimpy‘s Bob Jaques in its first season and staffed with many of the talented and distinctive artists from the Nickelodeon series. Yet it was still as unwatchable as anything else on TV (getting progressively worse in the former R&S artists’ absence, of course). It’s obvious the badness of these reprisals all comes down to control from the top, regardless of who’s making the product. It doesn’t matter who does Woody any more than it matters who does Bugs (see Joe Dante’s interviews regarding Looney Tunes: Back in Action), unless these guys are allowed to do what they do best.

After decades of this behavior, and with our culture immersed in reboots of all shapes and sizes, the time is ripe for improvement—let talented people rebirth these things the way fans want to see them; chances are, they’re fans too, so they’ll know. Disney seems to have struck a chord with its DuckTales revival; Tom and Jerry are reused by Warners so many times a year they’re bound to hit a target occasionally. But that’s about it. With the news that Animaniacs! is being revived with an ex-Seth MacFarlane producer as the showrunner and without a single writer from the original show, it seems most of Hollywood is determined to remain set in its alienating ways. It’s a shame even from a financial perspective; even $21 a day once a month is better than a billion dollar boner.

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Filed under classic animation, crap, Ren & Stimpy, TV

“Inspiration! Imagination! Animation!”

Thanks to Jack Theakston for sending along this article on UPA from the May 1952 issue of Production Design, the magazine put out by the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors. (What other animation studio could such a magazine feature?)

Note the date, when UPA was in its darkest hour and was forced to get a “loyalty oath” from its “Communist” employees or lay them off, otherwise they would lose the Columbia Pictures contract. As we all know, that’s when the studio lost most of its creative core: John Hubley, Bill Scott, and Phil Eastman. The cartoons were never the same (or good) again.

Knowing the time-sensitive nature that’s always been part of the publishing world, I can’t help but be impressed by the prompt hackjob the magazine did with removing any mention of those artists, save of course crediting Hubley for directing Rooty Toot Toot in a caption. Still, it features some interesting photos and drawings I’d never seen before and I can’t help but appreciate the “shop talk” that goes on for paragraphs and likely went over contemporary readers’ heads.

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Ignorance is B-B-Bliss

My critical post about Warner Archive’s Porky Pig 101 set has sparked considerable hostility in many corners of the Internet, some of it in my own comments section but mostly on Facebook.  Chief among my critics is Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, who wasted no time blasting me as “cinewhiner” because simply wanting the cartoons as they were originally presented is “complaining about everything,” and that I’m upset because I wasn’t called in to work on it. (We were once Facebook friends, and then Ron blocked me some time last year for some unknown reason. So I can’t help but see his attacking me in a venue where I can’t directly respond to him, often on the pages of friends and collaborators, as cowardly.) He needs to work on being a less transparent corporate shill, and ponder if he’d be so complacent if his Vitaphone Varieties collections released through Warner Archive had been plagued with the same issues. I’m not sure what that kind of sniping and gossiping buys us, when the work speaks for itself.

Enough. The Porky set had a noble goal—to get all of the cartoons in one place—but was forced to be completed in a timeframe and budget that obviously precluded basic quality control, and resulted in a collection far below basic acceptable standards (never mind those of the wonderful Golden Collections). Since Warners has admitted that they will not be revisiting these cartoons in the future, the set at the very least should have allowed people to pitch their recordings from Cartoon Network, or in my case the homemade copies I compiled with fellow collectors decades ago. With the vandalism done by Warner Archive, they most emphatically cannot.

Without even getting into the directors’ choices, Carl Stalling came up with a unique opening cue and arrangement for every one of his Warner cartoons. Now his creativity has been sabotaged because people who shouldn’t have their jobs  did amateur production work. This is censorship, plain and simple. The copyright holders deserve no praise for following the model they’ve used for years for Hanna-Barbera dreck on material that obviously deserves better: dumping content (black-and-white or not) and putting out a made-on-demand set on the level of one on a dealer’s table at a movie convention. If people would rather have these compromised versions than nothing, that’s fine. I know the feeling of needing some copy, as I myself had to make due with compromised versions of certain films for years. (Although I almost always refused to grant any censored or colorized films shelf space.) But when this is being done in the modern era, when everyone knows better, if some of us choose to not be blackmailed by corporate thugs and say, “Fine, then nothing,” and hold onto our own old copies, we shouldn’t be chastised – particularly when the errors we’re pointing out are absolutely there.

Perhaps this is another side effect of Trump’s America. People seek anything, anything, to escape this nightmare, and for a lot of people, a set of cheery cartoons was just that. Point out the miserable treatment the films were given, on the level of Alpha Video, and what happens? We have our answer.

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The Death of Looney Tunes on Home Video

PorkyPig101When I heard about the Porky Pig 101 5-disc DVD set from Warner Archive months ago via various channels of “insider info,” I literally felt nothing. Having that kind of unfazed reaction to a licensed, complete collection of Warner cartoons is quite odd, yes. But not really, once it was known “the conditions that prevail[ed].”

Beyond having no Blu-Ray version, the bulk of the cartoons, the ones that weren’t featured on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection sets of 2003-08, are not restored from the original negatives. They are mostly new transfers from 35mm fine grains and nitrate material. (This is also true for the new transfers of the color Warner cartoons of the last six years or so—they’re from interpositives, not the negs—which explains the very noticeable dip in quality and color.) We were forewarned that the difference would be noticeable, but hey, raw 35mm transfers are better than nothing, right?

When my copy arrived, the first cartoon I put on was Africa Squeaks, a crude little gem highlighting the casual racism of Bob Clampett (he was the best cartoon director of the early ‘40s, but if you want proof of that racism, it’s all over this set). It was indeed uncensored, but I was rather taken aback to see that it was an older master, one made in the analog video era. It didn’t bode well for the rest of the set. Despite the assurances these would be new transfers, several cartoons are sourced from the old Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network era analog masters. Given what transpired, I wish they were all taken from those copies.

One of the older masters used, complete with 4x3 TV safe window-boxing.

One of the older masters used, complete with 4×3 TV safe window-boxing.

How do I put this… Well, let’s just grab a title from each disc. Picador Porky looks okay, but it has the wrong soundtrack over the opening and closing—so Porky says “That’s All Folks!” when he isn’t actually there. Porky the Wrestler is still censored (a blackface gag was cut in 1942), and it’s exceptionally dirty and shaky, with the wrong “That’s All Folks!” card literally spliced on. Too many cartoons don’t have the WB shield zoom—it simply abruptly starts, just as so many film prints do.

Get Rich Quick Porky looks like a soft dupe, with the opening music from Confusions of a Nutzy Spy over the credits. Someone absolutely loved the opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble, as it’s on about six cartoons where it shouldn’t be. On Naughty Neighbors, it’s looped twice; see the below embedded example. In this example, the original intention was that Clampett and Carl Stalling are lulling you into a false sense of security—then abruptly cut to the feuding hillbillies. But now…

Below is another, this time from The Lone Stranger and Porky

The amateurish work done in post on some 25 percent of the cartoons ranges from flubs to (as demonstrated above) desecrating art. It’d be tempting to publish a full list of what’s wrong with every other cartoon on this set, but that would simply give it attention it does not deserve. POSTSCRIPT: Since many have now asked, here is a list of the actual video/audio flubs. We can debate forever what is or isn’t good print quality, but the following are objective, valid problems. I laugh at the idiots who say “They’re just cartoons!”, “They’ve never looked better!”, or “At least they’re not he Korean redrawn colorizations!” As if those arguments hold any water. Without further delay…

Westward Whoa – wrong soundtrack over opening
Shanghaied Shipmates – mastering error resulting in blocky pixilation at the end of the cartoon
Fish Tales – wrong soundtrack over opening, uses cue from Rover’s Rival; still censored
Porky the Wrestler – censored, has the end title from Little Beau Porky tacked on
Picador Porky –
has opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble, has wrong closing theme

Porky and Gabby – literally a jump splice from the credits to action, then splice to the end title
Get Rich Quick Porky – has the opening music from Confusions of a Nutty Spy and wrong closing music
Porky’s Garden
has the opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble and wrong closing music

Top, from the Columbia House VHS collection; bottom, the new DVD. "Hey, we worked really hard to do make some of these look worse. Give us $50."

Top, from the Columbia House VHS collection; bottom, the new DVD. “Hey, we worked really hard to do make some of these look worse. Give us $50.”

Porky & Daffy – missing first few seconds, starts abruptly on the WB shield
The Lone Stranger and Porky – has opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble
Chicken Jitters – has opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble
Kristopher Kolumbus Jr. – missing first few seconds, starts abruptly on the WB shield

Naughty Neighbors – has the opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble looped twice over the titles and first scene
Porky the Giant Killer – has the opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble
Africa Squeaks – fake fade-in on the WB shield, from previous video master
Ali Baba Bound – missing first few seconds, starts abruptly on the WB shield
Slap Happy Pappy – missing first few seconds, starts abruptly on the WB shield
Patient Porky – new poor transfer, despite being restored from the original negative on Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 5
Calling Dr. Porky – has opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble

Porky’s Hired Hand – has opening music from Porky’s Tire Trouble
Porky’s Bear Facts – missing first few seconds, starts abruptly on the WB shield (but it is one of the best-looking, and best, cartoons on the set)
Porky’s Ant
wrong soundtrack over opening
Porky’s Prize Pony
wrong soundtrack over opening
We the Animals Squeak!
missing first few seconds, starts abruptly on the WB shield
The Henpecked Duck
missing first few seconds, starts abruptly on the WB shield
Notes to You
wrong soundtrack over opening
Robinson Crusoe Jr.
wrong soundtrack over opening
Porky’s Cafe
wrong soundtrack over opening
Confusions of a Nutzy Spy – wrong end card, taken from a mid-30s short without Porky coming out of the drum

Make no mistake: the bodies of many of these cartoons look completely serviceable for a barebones release—from another era, that is. If this were a laserdisc set, it’d easily be one of the crown jewels of that format. But this is now 2017, when we have had a full decade’s worth of high-definition classic film restorations and releases. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.

If they had simply used the old video masters, at least those flubs could be blamed on bad work twenty years ago and not twenty weeks ago. “Utterly clueless” is an apt summation for these postproduction people; “interns” would be another. They did not do the esteemed Warner Archive label any favors. In fact, in one case, they did a new, poor transfer of the dud Patient Porky, despite the fact that Warners had restored that cartoon from the original negative over ten years ago for the Golden Collection. The “cost prohibitive” argument against doing full restoration falls apart if they spent money to make a cartoon look worse.

As someone who does film restoration and master preparation on a daily basis, I can sympathize with cut corners, gaffes here and there. It’s only human that a set of 101 short subjects would have a few imperfections, and it’d be unfair to blow those few out of proportion. But it is even more unfair when a giant corporation slings hash, knowing the stupid audience will buy the set anyway. If it’s this or nothing, fine. Nothing it is.

porkys last standWhile I’m sure I’ll be given grief for this, what’s the point if they’re not going to restore them and put out something half-assed that makes anyone who actually does care look bad? Does anybody really want to get an unrestored MGM Tex Avery set in standard-definition? Where is the guarantee that this kind of non-quality control will never happen again?

Don’t let anyone kid you. We are living in an era in which restoration and preservation costs are going down—just about every transfer house charges the same for 4K as 2K now—and small companies such as Thunderbean Animation and Cartoons on Film are willing to pick up the slack with their releases of public domain and copyrighted shorts. As I write this, I’m working on the remastering of a god-awful Don and Waffles cartoon animated by Jim Tyer that’s going to look inarguably as good (and arguably better) than any of the new transfers on this set. Think about that: a stupid public-domain Van Beuren cartoon is going to look better than a Warner cartoon on an officially licensed set. It’s utterly embarrassing that we’ll have restored versions of Flip the Frog, Willie Whopper, Felix the Cat, and Ko-Ko the Clown on Blu-Ray, and a behemoth like Warners won’t pony up the cash to do the same for Porky Pig. It’s not that the money isn’t there; it’s that Warners doesn’t want to spend it, and if the sales for this abomination are good, it’s proof they don’t have to do it.

the blow out Which underlies the real tragedy, given what the contents of Porky Pig 101 represent: the historic early works of the medium’s most talented people at the greatest animation studio of all-time, starring an incredibly enduring, timeless character. Doing restoration and preservation is only a good thing because they’ll always be venerable parts of the Warner library. If they’re not worth the extra mile, the “bonus” of proper restoration, what exactly is worth it? And does anyone really think they’re going to go back and do these the right way if it’s proven they can get away with this?

thats all folks

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