In honor of Universal Home Entertainment’s upcoming release of The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, StoryMakers Studio brought top animation talent and fans together for a star-studded salute to Walter Lantz and his classic cartoon character at the Man’s Chinese Theatres Complex in Hollywood on Wednesday night. Guests of honor included film critic and animation historian Leonard Maltin, six-time Emmy Award-winning cartoon producer Phil Roman and voice actors June Foray (Woody Woodpecker, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Disney’s Mulan), Maurice LaMarche (Futurama, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain) and Billy West (The New Woody Woodpecker Show, Ren & Stimpy, Futurama).
The evening kicked off with a panel discussion in which the celebrity guests shared their memories of Lantz and the effect his cartoons have had on their careers. June Foray, who was one of the early voices of Woody Woodpecker, gushed about what a great person Lantz was, noting that he was one of the first producers to give voice actors credits on cartoons. West, the current voice of Woody, recalled watching the theatrical shorts as a kid and remarked, ‘When I first heard Woody say ‘I’ll peck a few holes in your head,’ I knew that was for me.’
Maurice LaMarche said he was fascinated by the early shorts where Woody would intoduce Lantz to the audience. ‘In my pea-brain child world, I thought there was actually a place where cartoons interacted with real people,’ he remarked, adding that the book Walter Lantz Easy Way to Draw Featuring Woody Woodpecker and His Cartoon Friends got him hooked on animation from an early age.
Billy West, who entertained the crowd with a myriad of voices ranging from The Three Stooges‘ Larry Fine to film icon Gary Cooper, recalled analyzing the signature Woody Woodpecker laugh in preparation of taking over the role. When the original Mel Blanc recording was slowed down, he realized that it was so hard to replicate because it had been built up with splices. He went on to discuss his process for nailing other classic cartoon characters, including Popeye, and denounced the trend of using celebrity voices in major studio releases. ‘It’s an abomination,’ he stated. ‘It’s like sending in highly trained plumbers to win the World Series for you. These days, more attention is put on the visuals and the soundtrack just flatlines. Meanwhile, there’s no shred of evidence that a film wouldn’t have done better if they had used [professional voice talent] instead.’
Maltin, in his good-natured way, went off on his own rant when asked about the censorship of vintage cartoons that feature elements considered politically incorrect today. ‘We all grew up watching them and we didn’t turn out to be axe murderers,’ he said. ‘Kids are smarter than ever today and they get it. That’s the advantage of DVD over broadcast’you can choose to watch it or you can choose to not show it to your kids. I think it’s wrong to censor these. How can we learn and mature if we don’t face our past?’
Phil Roman added that the animated theatricals featured a lot of adult humor because they were intended for general audiences, and they had to be edited for children when television came along. But he said the biggest thing that was lost was the creator-driven nature of the theatricals. ‘They have a freshness and spontaneity of humor that still translates.’ Roman also noted that he and Foray had a special connection because he animated the Cindy Lou Who scene in the 1966 holiday classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in which Foray had the only speaking part other than narrator Boris Karloff.
Roman is currently consulting on a number of projects, including an animated feature film being produced in Mexico city, and Foray is voicing the role of a lizard in a series titled Holy Cow. LaMarche and West are back at work on Futurama, reprising their roles for four DVD movies and 16 new episodes that will air sometime in 2008 on Comedy Central. West says the movies will go far beyond where the series left off, and that the storylines have been so good that he has had a hard time adhering to studio gag orders. ‘Every time I read a script, I can’t wait to tell somebody about it!,’ he exclaimed. Maltin is celebrating his 20th year as a film critic for Entertainment Tonight and has finished the 2008 edition of his Movie Guide, which will go on sale on August 7.
The Woody Woodpeker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection from Universal Home Entertainment will be released on July 24. The set offers 75 animated shorts and more than an hour of vintage bonus materials, including behind-the-scenes footage of Lantz and the documentary Walter, Woody and the World of Animation. It will carry a suggested retail price of $39.98.