Friday, November 9, 2007

Guess Who?

We all have our favorites. You're either a Beatles person or you're a Stones person. You like chunky over smooth, the Yankees over the Mets, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK over STAR WARS. You can like both, but ultimately, you can only prefer one over the other. It's not Sophie's Choice, you know, it's just a matter of personal taste; I like you Veronica, but I love Betty. Hey, we can always be friends.

So when it comes to animated characters, you're either a Bugs Bunny person or a Mickey Mouse person. Bugs is more of a free-thinking individual, while Mickey tries to be all things to all people. They both have their strengths and faults, but they're more or less opposites, Bugs' ying to Mickey's yang.

But what if you're a Woody Woodpecker person?

I don't quite know how it happened, but I fell for Woody Woodpecker when I was around 6 or so and never turned back since. Again, I've got nothing against all the other great animated characters, but Woody Woodpecker has long been my favorite and I'm sticking to it. Many have passed him off as nothing more than a Bugs Bunny rip-off (he arrived a year after Bugs), and I won't deny that there are elements of Bugs in Woody (fearlessly anti-social; willing to take on jerks head-on) but Woody's got his own thing going on, and I like him for that. To start, he's got a theme song; Bugs and Mickey didn't have their own theme song, did they? "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" was actually the Looney Tunes theme and there was nothing for the Disney shorts. And Woody had a great look to him, spectacularly colorful and very eccentric; with his bright red head, long beak and sort-of Mohawk, the guy looks like a crazy cartoon woodpecker, you know? As a kid, I always used to prefer his later, post-50s "cuter" look, but I much prefer the classic original look and have for a while now. Another reason to like Woody Woodpecker? Many of the early cartoons are still fucking hilarious.

In watching a lot of these shorts today, I was bit taken aback by just how obnoxious a character Woody is; he'll do what he likes and isn't afraid to be an asshole. You still see that today on stuff like Cartoon Network shows, but when you consider most of the classic animated characters you have to realize how odd this is for the time. However, this also gives Woody a bit of a punk rock element to him, making him something of an early anti-establishment hero, in a way, and even more endearing in my book. Am I reaching when I say this? You're welcome to think so, but that's the impression I'm getting from Woody today and it makes me like him all the more. His actions (much more destructive than Bugs') and his high-pitched voice (which should be grating, but isn't) and attitude are appealing to me; he's also surrounded by equally amusing co-stars (Wally Walrus, Buzz Buzzard) and there's usually some good cartoon banter to them. The early shorts are very well animated and still pretty funny. Seriously, what's the problem here?

So even though Woody aired for decades on TV, about 20 years ago TV airings pretty much just dried out, about the same time as most other classic cartoons were sent packing from syndication; but unlike Bugs and Mickey, Woody never really made a comeback at any point. Fox aired a new Woody series (which I must admit I barely remember) and I picked up a Woody t-shirt at Target about 2 years back, but other than that, nada in the WW department. I understand that he's around in costume over at Universal studios in Burbank and Florida, but I also must admit that I've never been to either, so what good does that do me? Especially worse was the lack of Woody material from the home video market; Universal made some VHS compilations available in the late 80s and early 90s and there was a laserdisc around that time, too, and then absolutely nothing until this past July. With very little fanfare (aside from a screening in L.A. with Leonard Maltin) or press attention (calling Dave Kehr) they put out a nice 3-disc set with a lot of what they had lying around and what appears to be not a lot of clean-up, though I'm going to admit that for all of my experience in the DVD world, production is not my forte and it's possible I just don't know what I'm talking about. But they don't look all great, if you ask me; colors are inconsistent, grain and dirt are everywhere, and they all show their age. The major upside to this set (aside from the fact that it's available at all) is that you get a lot of content - all of the WW cartoons until 1952, several Chilly Willy, Andy Panda and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, including the famed "Confidence" from 1933. There are also many snippets from Walter Lanz's WW TV shows and an additional Halloween special, but there isn't anything historical or retrospective about them. Where's Maltin or Robert Osborne or someone like that? How about some commentaries by some experts or something? Hey, I'm available, you know.

Still, it's nice to know the set is out there and I hope enough units sell to bring out volume 2. It would also be nice if it helps to bring out a resurgence in the red-headed little bastard. He's made me laugh, he's probably made you laugh at one time or another, so take a moment out to think about Woody and watch one of his old flicks. They're still fun and I'm happy to say I still love the guy, all these years later.

PS - A search for images for this piece led to the rather troubling discovery that Google image search isn't as well-policed as they seem to think it is. Type "Woody Woodpecker" in there, check out the first couple of selections and you'll see what I mean. NSFW!!!

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