Category Archives: TV

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

What IS it about Thad, anyway?

A model sheet for Tex Avery’s WAGS TO RICHES. For probably the only time in animation history, why would you WANT to go off-model?


Good lord, has it really been five months since I last posted here?

I’m finding I have less interest in maintaining a blog on my own time and server, though I’ll still keep it up for posterity, and maybe post something every so often. I’ve relocated to New York City (well, really New Jersey) to continue my graduate studies, so I haven’t been idly passing time. I’ve also written several pieces for not only Jerry Beck’s revived Cartoon Research, but his Animation Scoop blog on Indiewire, as well as monthly column on Stefan Blitz’s Forces of Geek. I’ve learned, quickly, that if I’m going to devote time to, say, interviewing Tod Polson about his amazing book on Maurice Noble, reviewing a new oral history of the Nickelodeon cable network, or putting out a warning about the Blu-Ray releases of Fleischer and Disney animation (link coming soon), I want as many people as possible to read my work.

Ergo, collaborating with and writing for what I’ve come to consider “hub-sites” is the most sensible way to proceed, as I make no mistake that my humble personal site doesn’t attract many visitors. The death of the blog happened some time ago, as evidenced by the fact that all of wonderful blogs that began in 2006-07 related to animation have fallen to the wayside. I think this is directly related to the rise of social media and the growing, prominent OCD of our culture. If it’s not a couple of sentences directly communicated in a span of minutes, it isn’t worth the bother to read.

I have a number of different projects going on, most pertaining to the art of animation, like a revised and expanded edition of Sick Little Monkeys, and I hope to post updates in the coming months. In the meantime, that capstone project of mine is still very much worth reading in even its imperfect form, if the reviews are any indication.

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Filed under classic animation, Ren & Stimpy, TV

Odds and Ends, Bits and Pieces

I’ve been periodically adding information to the WB Production Number Project as more original release prints and artwork have come my way. This tidbit, though, comes from film archivist and historian Bob Furmanek, regarding the release date of Lumber Jack-Rabbit, the only cartoon Warners released in 3-D.

It was released in 3-D on September 25, 1953 and re-released flat on November 13, 1954. It premiered on September 25, 1953 at the Hollywood and downtown Paramount theaters with the WB 3-D feature, The Moonlighter. Thanks to some bogus data in an error-riddled 3-D book, that wrong 1954 release date is all over the Internet!

I’ve amended the entry for Jack-Rabbit on my site. It would be helpful if those who like to mess around with Wikipedia and the IMDB would do some good and add this information there as well.

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I’ve launched the Facebook page for my upcoming book, Sick Little Monkeys: The Unauthorized Ren & Stimpy Story, where I’ll be posting Ren & Stimpy related minutiae on a semi-daily basis. Spread the word, and keep an eye out, there and here, for updates regarding publication. If there is interest, maybe I will start occasionally posting some of the various interviews I did for the book here.

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Filed under classic animation, Ren & Stimpy, TV

Butterfingered

(This site may become Thadwell’s Book Corner soon, but don’t count on it.)

It’s been over two years since the release of John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Unauthorized, Uncensored History. I put off reading it until very recently. The consensus is that while Ortved did a solid job researching his subject, he botched the presentation.

The book takes that most undemanding route of the oral history, a format indicative of a writer with zero narrative skill. The adeptness to accumulate the facts was there, as successfully conducting some eighty interviews is no mean feat, but weaving them into something compelling was beyond Ortved.

Ortved’s own prose is fannish at best. The book credits a copyeditor, but one wonders what that job entailed given how ham-fisted the final book is. (There are also many typos and grammatical errors.) Ortved presents his own anecdotes under the delusion that someone reading a history of The Simpsons is interested in his personal viewing experiences. He is also presumptuous thinking that the reader already knows who worked on which episodes; that by merely naming episode titles, his case for what exactly was “the Simpsons‘ Golden Age” is made.

The best example of the book’s shortcomings may be the entire chapter devoted to former Simpsons writer Conan O’Brien (he was one of Ortved’s more prestigious interview subjects, quoted on the back cover). O’Brien was obviously an essential presence in the writers room. Surely his best solo writing job, Marge vs. the Monorail, is one of the few perfect half-hours of 1990s television (and far funnier than anything else he’s done, up to and including the present day). Ortved never tells us why O’Brien was significant to the series. All we learn is that the other writers found him a continuous riot and that they were all amazed to see where he’s gone.

One of the chief complaints is that Ortved is too opinionated in his book. He doesn’t think too highly of the last 15 years or so of The Simpsons, and thus received poor marks for his dismissal. Of course, anyone with eyes shares his opinion of the show’s decline. Rather, the resentment should be towards how poorly he framed his critiques. Ortved’s analysis of the Simpsons‘ peak is practically nonexistent, whereas his emphasis, prose on how “lame” the later episodes are, is barely above the average Internet forum posting.

The block quotes are ultimately what you’re going to get the book for. Now that the book is less than $11 on Amazon, you could do much worse. Certainly the price is justified for people like O’Brien or Brad Bird talking about the show in detail. It’s also a great primer for those interested in learning about the show’s chief architects. The quotes give indication of how compelling a history of The Simpsons could really be.

Journalist [and Simpsons guest voice] Tom Wolfe makes a thought provoking comment near the end of the book. “The Simpsons also managed to make a virtue out of bad draftsmanship. The characters are really terribly drawn, but they are so stylized that it doesn’t make any difference any longer.”

Truer words were never spoken about the show. Fans like to romanticize about the fist few seasons, but the show was always poorly drawn and mechanically animated. What was wonderful, though, is that it was a deliberate mechanicalness, one that helped emphasize the sharp writing and the best ensemble of voice actors in decades. It was not merely what its detractors call an ink-and-paint live-action show. While owing more to live-action than any cartoon, it was still something that couldn’t work if it was not animated. When the writing was golden, they used cartoon license to add to the scripts’ quirkiness. Surely no one could envision animator David Silverman’s scenes of Homer’s heart attack or “No TV and no beer make Homer something-something” translating nearly as well into a live-action comedy; the movement is humorously stilted, becoming a new form of stylization in the process. This effect deteriorated as the show progressed, no doubt. When the writing went to pot and the voices started phoning in, there was nothing to hide the crude formula of the draftsmanship that was always present.

In the decades since The Simpsons premiered, there have been many primetime animated shows. These shows’ creators included people who would like to be doing live-action exclusively but use drawings as a means of presenting unoriginality as hip (Mike Judge), those whose greatest talent is exploiting the growing ADHD in our society (Seth MacFarlane), and even some who enlarged upon The Simpsons‘ virtues and carried them out in a completely different way (Trey Parker/Matt Stone).

Prime time animation has not been very visually pleasing as a result, and that irks a lot of people. It’s undeniable that having people ingrained in live-action has worked in these shows’ favor. Controversial though it may be, live-action people are just plain smarter than animation people. If it were the other way around, maybe every major artist-driven series or studio wouldn’t fizzle out/peak after a couple of films/years, be it financially or artistically.

Ortved was charged with being one-sided because he didn’t interview Groening or mogul James L. Brooks for his book. Much of this had to do with Ortved’s emphasis on the important role TV writing legend Sam Simon played in shaping the series and assembling its writing team in the first three years of the show.

Less bothersome to some reviewers is the fact that hardly anyone still involved with the show was interviewed (voice artist Hank Azaria being the primary exception), which is typical for any still-living Hollywood product. Should someone want to write the real Pixar story before the studio dries up (monetarily), they will face the same problems of dealing with the corporation’s front office before they can secure interviews with the talent.

He quotes Groening and Brooks, albeit from a variety of sources, and was criticized that they weren’t able to answer to charges of their own egos in the present day, which seems to be a naive assumption at best. Anyone who honestly holds this against Ortved has obviously never conducted an interview with people in the entertainment business. Case in point: in preparation for my own book on The Ren & Stimpy Show, there were several notable people who refused to be interviewed, some declines more impassioned than others. More than once I was told that the accuracy of my reporting and writing is compromised because I’m a critic of John K.’s works and words. (They’re welcome to still be interviewed as of this posting.)

I’m sure Ortved was taught the same thing by his teachers in college that I was: there is no such thing as objectivity. Frequent use of “objectivity”, or “respect”, is symbolic of an individual whose aspirations for controlling what others think clouds his or her own reasoning. The best commodities of Hollywood always stem from powerful egos, and it’s only natural that people want to control how the history they lived is presented. Ortved said the big players would be fine talking to him if he would write a puff piece on the making of the Simpsons Movie. Likewise, regardless of my own attitudes and ardor, some people with R&S would have zero interest in contributing to anything more meaningful than the likes of the tame oral history (see the pattern?) that appeared in the most recent issue of Hogan’s Alley. Had Ortved actually interviewed the holdouts, they probably wouldn’t have answered the tough questions anyway.

All of which is to say that I certainly sympathize with Ortved’s plight, but I wish a better written book came out of it. There are endless hints throughout at how fascinating and wonderful a book about what was one of the most important TV shows of all time, and what was inarguably one of the few products of TV animation worth taking seriously, could be. Ortved laid the rough foundation, now it’s up to someone to utilize it. Maybe the show will actually be over by then.

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Filed under modern animation, Ren & Stimpy, The Simpsons, TV