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"Popeye's Voyage: Quest for Pappy" Strong to the Finish

Well blow me down, matey. Apparently not lost at sea, Popeye makes a surprise return to animation in the direct to DVD feature Popeye’s Voyage: Quest for Pappy. If memory serves, Popeye’s last foray put him up against the likes of the Smurfs on Saturday mornings, so it’s been a good long while. Showing that an old seadog can still learn a trick or too, this time Popeye joins the CGI craze that’s swept up other vets like Mickey and Garfield.

I have to admit I had rather low expectations for Popeye’s Voyage, which arrived with very little fanfare. In addition, Popeye’s animated track record isn’t exactly the most distinguished to begin with. The early shorts are great fun, but Popeye slipped to mediocre in the 50s and downright awful in the 70s. Would Quest for Pappy just continue this disheartening descent? Actually, it doesn’t. The new feature is a surprising return to form for the crusty old sailor man. Popeye’s Voyage delivers a number of strong laughs that rank right up there with the best of his early shorts, though this iteration prefers verbal humor to the physical humor that distinguished its predecessors.

Being a feature, if a brief one, Popeye’s Voyage has less in common structurally with the classic shorts. It’s more similar to the Popeye Valentine Special (1979), though it may be loosely based on “Me Quest for Poopdeck Pappy.” In fact, it pits Popeye against the very same nemesis as that cartoon, and I had a few moments of déjà vu until I was reminded what a vastly superior production this is. The holidays are approaching, and Popeye peacefully works his boat with first mate Bluto, who doesn’t seem to want to kill Popeye this time around, though the relationship remains contentious. Waiting in port are his son Sweetpea, sweetheart Olive Oyl, and parasitic friend Whimpy, the latter two holding out their hands for a wedding ring and food respectively. However, Popeye is not completely content, and he longs to discover what became of his long lost Pappy who abandoned him so many years ago. So he launches an expedition to find Pappy. Olive and Sweetpea tag along, the former insistent on spending the holidays with her beau, while Whimpy, his eyes on the ship’s larder, stows away in the hold. As the crew nears their goal, they find themselves set upon by mysterious forces, including a vicious storm and a sea monster. These turn out to be the handiwork of the Sea Hag, who is still after Popeye to gain his hand and fulfill some sort of prophecy. Popeye finally finds Pappy, but must battle the magic of the Sea Hag. She casts a spell that makes Olive fall in love with Bluto, and disguises herself as a beautiful siren to lure the heartbroken Popeye, leading inevitably to an epic showdown.

First and foremost, the voice work in Popeye’s Voyage is spectacular. I’m not as familiar with Pappy and Sea Hag, but Popeye, Bluto, Olive, and Whimpy are all perfectly portrayed. It’s really a treat to hear them brought to life so artfully. The writers have clearly gone back to the very earliest shorts for inspiration, as these are classic turns on the characters. This is Popeye and Bluto at their comic best, muttering and blustering through every confrontation. The only character aspect that came as a surprise to me was Olive’s obsession with marriage, but I don’t know whether that reflects a concession to modern times or the limitations of my Popeye knowledge.

The animation is the weak spot of this production, and I regret to say it is very weak. The basic CGI is laughable in places, and overall barely up to PS2 standards. The characters themselves thankfully look fairly good. The designs appear just as they did in the old days, and move convincingly, though with just a bit of jerkiness and plasticity. Still, they don’t come anywhere near the realism of Pixar or Dreamworks. The plain backgrounds and objects that surround the cast are simply dreadful, burping up some of the crudest CGI effects I’ve seen in recent years.

The score is a bit of a letdown as well. Always an energetic driving force back in the old days, here it’s a bit bland and remains humbly in the background. The trademark Popeye theme does finally kick in when called for, but only briefly and in a slightly watered down modern version.

Of course the most important part of Popeye has always been the humor, and this is where Popeye’s Voyage excels. A number of good lines come out of Olive’s marriage fixation, such as when Olive asks Popeye if he needs a place to kneel and he mutters heavily “I never get tired of hearing that one.” Later Bluto objects to the potential bad luck of having a woman on board the ship, and Popeye explains, “She ain’t no woman, she’s just Olive.” In fact Olive’s sea legs turn out to be more than a little rusty, causing Popeye to remark, “All that vomiting can’t be good for the fish.” And in a rare bit of self-referential humor, a consternated Popeye rationalizes, “I guess it’s a good thing I already talk to myself all the time so I don’t have to worry I’m developing a neurosis.”

The special features are not half bad for a cheap direct to DVD production. The Making of Popeye’s Voyage is a quite informative look at how the animation and voices were achieved. There are brief interviews with Popeye and Olive about their roles, and a deleted scene in storyboard form in which Olive attempts to redecorate the ship to Popeye’s great distress. The bonus highlight should have been the four “classic” Popeye shorts, but unfortunately these all turn out to be middling later productions circa 1960: “Spinach Greetings,” “Popeye in the Grand Steeple Chase,” “Valley of the Goons,” and “William Won’t Tell.” It’s disappointing, especially since the inclusion of some of the early shorts would have made this disc a must-see. I suppose the rights for the best stuff are more expensive.

I don’t know if it will make any new converts, but Popeye fans will surely want to check out Quest for Pappy. It’s the funniest Popeye adventure in decades, an effective retro turn in modern wrapping. The CGI visuals are a considerable letdown, but they won’t keep you from laughing. Popeye always had a face only Olive could love anyway.

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