Category Archives: crap

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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Toby the Pup: Lost Cartoons Still Lost

tobybluWhile a release of any pre-code sound animation should be worth celebrating, Toby the Pup from Ray Pointer’s Inkwell Images should be approached with caution.

The basic background: these are cartoons made in 1930-31 by the three-way partnership of animators Dick Huemer, Sid Marcus (whom Huemer credited with creating Toby, despite what this release implies), and Art Davis for producer Charles Mintz and distributed by RKO. The series was a failure and ended after twelve cartoons, all of which are considered “lost.”

Four of them resurfaced in modern times by way of 35mm French release prints from Lobster Films and Serge Bromberg (not “Bomberg” as the release’s credits have it), and that’s mostly what’s included here; Circus Time is from UCLA Film & Television Archive (not “UCLA & Television Archives”, as seen, again, in the credits). Other Toby cartoons have been found, though I’m not at liberty to say how many (mainly because I’m not sure myself).

It should be telling that three errors seen on the Inkwell release needed to be corrected right off the bat, but even historical inaccuracies and embarrassing typos can be forgiven if the films’ presentation is satisfactory. Such is not the case, by a long shot.

As someone who does film restoration on a daily basis, I sympathize with those who have to work with a meager budget on material that has suffered to this degree. Bearing in mind the Toby cartoons’ history, raw transfers would’ve been just fine. Sadly, as is typical of an Inkwell Images release, Pointer seeks to “improve” the cartoons to the best of his technical abilities, which seem as ancient as the cartoons. Poor title recreations with generic fonts and fake irises pepper the set. Whoever mastered the Blu-Ray (BD-R, not a replicated disc) has no idea how to do so, since the 50 minutes of material is far more compressed than it needs to be, with a botched frame rate to boot (6o fps as opposed to the correct 24fps). The accompanying DVD-R actually looks far better.

TOP: The Milkman as seen on the Inkwell Images release. BOTTOM: As seen on Cartoon Roots.

TOP: The Milkman as seen on the Inkwell Images release.
BOTTOM: As seen on Cartoon Roots.

What’s left of the material that is. Another Inkwell trademark is unnecessary censorship, pointed out in the feature-length audio commentary by Mark Kausler. He kindly alludes that cuts in Circus Time may be some long-dead besotted censor’s work, when in fact these were edits made specifically for this release. Compare the version of The Milkman seen here to the one on Tom Stathes’ Cartoon Roots. It’s over a minute shorter! True, the Stathes release reinstates some previously lost footage (taken from a 16mm print), but the Inkwell release is even missing more than that. The random censorship is a long-standing problem that Pointer has never adequately explained, if an explanation is even possible.

Dig that full 1080p resolution!

Dig that full 1080p resolution!

Unsurprisingly, the sole saving grace of this collection is that 30-minute audio commentary by Mark. It captures any afternoon spent with this animation treasure for those not lucky enough to experience one personally: tons of fascinating insight, little-known history, and laughter. It’s just a shame he had his time wasted.

While the Toby cartoons themselves are as hit-and-miss as the Scrappy cartoons the Huemer-Marcus-Davis did for Columbia, there’s also a wonderful charm and life to them. Halloween in particular matches anything done by the Fleischers at their off-the-wall pre-code peak. They deserve better than Inkwell Images has provided. Fortunately the films and character are public domain (the “trademark” information is erroneous—you can’t trademark a public domain property, especially when you haven’t created any new content with said character), so someone can do a better job in the future with what survives. Let’s hope.

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Last Days of Coney Island

last-days

My first thought after watching Last Days of Coney Island, the 22-minute film Ralph Bakshi made via funds from Kickstarter (and which I only got to see after practically screaming at their door, despite having backed it), is that it’s an utter embarrassment. But, given what Bakshi’s name has been attached to for the last 40 years, what’s left to be embarrassed about?

The film is the train wreck we all expected, but the train took a messy detour through a couple ditches while derailing. For once the narrative and story aren’t entirely to blame; brothels made up of Coney Island clown hookers, and the woes of their lovers and children… you know the drill with Bakshi. Despite being utterly pointless and stupid, the script is surprisingly solid given the man’s track record. Its failure is all about the actual artless art that moves it.

Remember those kids in animation school that either flunked out or got an extension because their films weren’t finished? Coney Island is exactly that. There is no clean-up. There are no inbetweens. Clips of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassinations are taken from low-resolution YouTube rips. I had to make sure my high-speed Internet connection wasn’t lagging several times.

As a friend aptly put it, “Wow, this is like if a retarded 6th grader saw Malcom and Melvin and tried to make a Powerpoint presentation about it.” If it were a student film, any respectable teacher would’ve handed this back with an essay’s worth of comments on why the student wasn’t passing the course.

Which is a shame, because while the animation in Bakshi’s films was always all over the map, there was still much to admire. How could there not be with the talent he used and abused over the years? As the memoriam in the end credits reminds us, Bakshi worked with some of the best in Hollywood and New York animation. They ranged from those that loved him (Irv Spence, Marty Taras) to those that despised him (Dave Tendlar) to those he repeatedly denigrated (Bob Taylor). After seeing that list of thanks, my other immediate thought was, “Too bad he didn’t have any of those guys working on this.”

Bakshi is a common type in Hollywood: a relatively lousy filmmaker who keeps getting the chance to prove himself, repeatedly getting money and accolades only to offer nothing in return. I’ve noticed no accolades online for this film though (save from the usual sycophants). Despite a decent amount of press, Coney Island has warranted very little discussion in animation circles. Is everyone just in shock over how bad it is?

For the $174,195 he raised, I can name any number of animators who would’ve done a better job. Mark Kausler, who animated key sequences in Heavy Traffic and Coonskin for only a couple hundred dollars each, immediately comes to mind. (EDIT: Mark wrote to tell me he was paid a grand per job.) Michael Sporn, who unsuccessfully tried raising less than ten percent of Bakshi’s goal to make a whole feature, is another.

In a fair world, it’d be the Kauslers and Sporns who’d get a chance or two to make a film without restrictions, and the other kinds of animators would be sitting in a corner praying that someone will remember they were once actually good at something. But Mark is retired, and Michael’s passed on.

One thing in Bakshi’s favor: a reoccurring theme in his work is contempt for how the liars, hypocrites, and conmen of the world get away with everything, while the good guys are stomped out. Pretty autobiographical, however unintended.

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Mark Kausler on ’70s Dizknee

I don’t want to take discussion of late Disney to any insane lengths, but as a follow-up to my review of Steve Hulett’s Mouse in Transition, this highly enjoyable piece from almost 40 years ago warrants a web posting.

Mark Kausler tends to shy away from reviewing animated works, even if he’s always capable of thoughtful commentary based on his decades of industry experience and passionate knowledge of American animation history. I think everyone will agree that The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon are not the finest examples of the Disney empire (“lame” is the word that comes immediately to mind). I also think everyone will agree that Mark’s joint review and assessment of the studio in that period for Funnyworld No. 18 (Summer 1978) is entirely mild, fair and astute.

 

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(Posted with permission from Misters Kausler and Barrier.)

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