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Culture

The Curse of Godzooky, or If I Should Fall From Grace With Godzilla

Will Harris

At a low point in his career, Godzilla debases himself. Meanwhile, Godzooky and other distant, so-called

GODZILLA AT 50 Godzilla has changed. At 50, he is no longer the hulking, pea-brained brute we thought. Our writers contemplate his transition from bringer of Armageddon to bringer of agathon, a fierce and ironic comfort to children who sense that theirs is a dangerous world.


"Godzooky, ach! The Kid is Not My Son," says Godzilla
:: THE CURSE OF GODZOOKY,
or If I Should Fall From Grace With Godzilla

By Will Harris

The website UrbanDictionary.com defines the word "Godzooky" (spelled on that site as "Godzookie") as "a huge person who resembles, or possibly is, the son/daughter of Godzilla." In order to offer further clarification, it provides the word in a sentence in its proper context: "Whoah, that Godzookie just ate an entire pizza, three orders of chicken wings, five acres of brussels sprouts, and Mrs. Jones's dog."

Maybe it's just because I'm not sufficiently urban, but I've never once heard the word "Godzooky" used in that context. When I have heard the word "Godzooky", I always heard it in a sing-song voice, just as it was crooned during the opening theme of The Godzilla Power Hour on Saturday mornings in 1978.

Up from the depths
Thirty stories high
Breathing fire
His head in the sky
Godzilla!
Godzilla!
Godzilla!
And Godzooky . . .






Whereupon, taking his cue from the lyrical mention, Godzooky would fly less than gracefully on screen and perform a bumbling, rough-and-tumble landing to display his incompetence to all viewers. His act all but screaming, "Hiya, kids, I'm the comic relief!"

Presumably, Godzilla and Godzooky were related, but I'm pretty sure Godzooky wasn't actually Godzilla's son. If he was, then either he'd changed a lot since Son of Godzilla and Godzilla's Revenge, or Godzilla had more than one kid. Personally, I always got the impression that Godzooky was more of, say, a third cousin . . . the sort of relative that you only feel an obligation to protect because he's family and not because you're particularly close to him. Come to think of it, characterization-wise, he's a lot like Scrappy Doo, actually, even though he actually showed up a full year before that execrable inventor of "puppy power."

Unlike the loathsome, lesser Doo, however, the blame for the failure of this cartoon incarnation of the King of the Monsters can't be blamed squarely on Godzooky. The edge and the drama of the Godzilla films (hey, when you're eight years old, they seem full of the stuff) were utterly absent from this cartoon. Part of the excitement that came with watching Godzilla movies was that he was more than a little bit scary and you never knew exactly where his loyalties might lie . . . if, in fact, he truly had any loyalties at all. He was, after all, a monster.

In this cartoon, however, Godzilla was little more than a trained pet. The show's characters were the crew of a ship called the Calico: Captain Carl Majors, Professor Quinn Darian, her assistant, Brock, and her nephew, Pete. The aforementioned Godzooky lived alongside the crew of the Calico, though how he came to do so was also never mentioned. This lack of back-story is annoying now, but, oddly, I don't recall being terribly concerned about it when I was eight.

Oh, and did I mentioned that Captain Majors possessed a sonic device that was able to call Godzilla whenever his presence was needed? Basically, the King of Monsters would comin' a runnin' anytime they pressed the magic button. Godzilla was their freakin' lapdog! Sorry, that's not the Godzilla I knew and loved from the films.

Plus, Godzilla didn't even look scary in the cartoon. Some genius decided that the movies to which children had been thrilling for years weren't actually kid-friendly enough, so they redesigned Godzilla and streamlined him to make him appear less scary. He didn't have any obvious scales anymore, just spines down his back. Nor did he have the same roar as he did in the films, reportedly because Hanna Barbara wasn't willing to foot the bill to license the sound it from Toho Studios.

And as if all of these indignities weren't enough, they didn't even give him his own show! Despite its name, The Godzilla Power Hour actually only dedicated a half-hour of its time to our big green friend; the other half was handed over to re-runs of Johnny Quest. Later in the season, the show expanded by another half-hour and changed its name to Godzilla and the Super 90; no additional Godzilla time was forthcoming, however, as the extra 30 minutes were given to Jana of the Jungle,a lame female version of Tarzan.

When 1979 rolled around, Godzilla found himself teamed with the Harlem Globetrotters, of all people, for The Godzilla/Harlem Globetrotters Adventure Hour. I'm not going to swear that you can't do six degrees of separation between Godzilla and the Harlem Globetrotters, because I'm guessing that you can (though probably not without using The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island), but seriously, what kind of jacked-up pairing is that?

Surprisingly, though, that incarnation survived the entire 1979-80 season. But come 1980, it was time for The Godzilla/Dynomutt Hour with the Funky Phantom, which, in its own way, is just as bizarre a combination. Even worse, though, the Dynomutt episodes might've been new, but The Funky Phantom was a Hanna Barbara leftover from 1971 that was recycled for no discernible reason. When this team-up didn't work, the network apparently rationalized that the problem was less with the concept of a canine crime fighter than with a ghost from the Revolutionary War era. So they opted to team Godzilla up with Hong Kong Phooey, this time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Godzilla did not appear on the next year's Saturday morning line-up. Surely, even the kids who liked the idea of being able to watch a Godzilla cartoon, had become fed up with the big green guy's inability to get his own show, or at least a halfway-reasonable co-headliner. And sadly, Godzilla never recovered. Not in America, anyway.

In fact, Godzilla did not appear again in the US in any significant fashion (aside from the infinite number of reruns of his old movies, of course) until 1985, at which point someone in Hollywood decided that the time was right to unleash a new film: Godzilla 1985. Unfortunately, it kind of sucked.

Okay, as a 15-year-old, I admit, I didn't think it entirely sucked. I certainly liked the idea of this brand-new Godzilla movie playing in my local theater. The only problem was, it never came to play in my local theater. I had to wait for it to appear on home video . . . and, ultimately, home video is just not the right place to experience a Godzilla film.

The word on the street was that the Japanese version of the film was better than the American version. The latter, of course, existed solely because my fellow Americans and I couldn't possibly be trusted to enjoy a film unless there were other Americans — and their American subplots that don't appear in the Japanese version. The up-side to this was that Raymond Burr, who appeared in the American version of the original Godzilla, reappears in Godzilla 1985…playing the same character, no less, which was a nice touch. Unfortunately, aside from the nostalgia factor, the acting and dialogue were pretty awful. And, with that, Godzilla once again left American movie screens for another decade or so.

He hadn't left Japanese screens, though. Another six new films resulted from the success of Godzilla 1985, featuring match-ups with Biollante, King Ghiodrah, Mothra, Mechagodzilla, Space Godzilla, and Destroyer. In fact, Barry Goldberg, who runs StompTokyo.com, arguably the most definitive Godzilla website on the internet, has declared Godzilla vs. King Ghiodrah to be his favorite film in the entire series. "This one has everything!" he gushes. "Time travel, psychic powers, androids, cyborg monsters, fantastic special effects and, of course, the return of Ghidrah."

American filmmakers, however, couldn't be bothered to continue with the established mythos of the Godzilla series. No, they had to start from scratch, change Godzilla's origin, completely redesign the monster, and make a new film that, while not a bad monster flick overall, most hardcore Godzilla fans wrote off as being utterly unaffiliated with the films that had come before it. Or, indeed, after it.

Godzilla 2000 appeared on these shores two years after the big-budget disappointment that was Hollywood's adaptation of the monster. It was a return to the fun of the original Japanese series, which makes sense, given that it was a Japanese film dubbed into English, but with no tacked-on American scenes. I was proud to take my two nephews to see the movie when I visited them in Tucson, Arizona, and my youngest nephew, Sage, was in awe throughout the film. Tyler, his older brother, was just as entertained, I think, but he was a bit older, so he wasn't sitting there with his jaw on the floor like Sage was. When we went out to dinner later that evening, Sage heard sirens outside, at which point he suddenly turned to me and declared, "It's Godzilla!"

Unfortunately, the US public as a whole wasn't nearly as impressed with the film as my nephews and I were. Though two further sequels appeared in Japan, they received no US distribution. So I ask you: is it any coincidence that Godzilla's formal slide in US popularity came about circa the arrival of Godzooky on the scene? I think not. There's currently talk of re-releasing the original Godzilla in 2004 as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of its initial release. Perhaps this will help break the curse and remind people of the glorious monster that is the one, true Godzilla.

Unfortunately, however, it'll probably just result in a promotional push that'll include a Cartoon Network marathon of The Godzilla Power Hour, at which point the cycle will begin anew. Godzilla help us. Godzilla help us all.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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