"Popeye the Sailor Vol. 2" Cartoon Classics Best Viewed Without "Friends"
Some classics are best appreciated in modern times as building blocks. Any understanding of history will show that they broke new ground at the time they were made and formed the foundation for much of what would follow. However, for most modern audiences, they have much more interest as history than as entertainment. There are other classics that are genuine classics—as fresh and entertaining as they day they were released. These classics turn out to have lost none of their charm or dazzle, and stand up as good or better than the works that followed.
The Fleischer brothers’ Popeye cartoons definitely fall into the second category. Last year, Warner Home Video won many accolades for their first four-disc DVD release of the Fleischer’s Popeye cartoons, and this year they will no doubt earn more for the two-disc sequel. Popeye the Sailor: 1938 – 1940 Vol. 2 is a DVD that belongs in any animation fan’s library, both for its stellar content and for the outstanding presentation of that content. The rambunctious squint-eyed sailor of E.C. Segar’s newspaper comic strip rocketed to fame with these animated shorts, and watching them again today will make it clear why. They have lost none of their power to surprise and delight, and ought to be required viewing for anybody with the least interest in animation.
While the general public is aware of the contributions of Walt Disney and Warner Bros.’ Termite Terrace in the world of early animation, both studios were building on the contributions of the studio run by Max and Dave Fleischer, which was even more popular than Disney at the time. Just the technical contributions they made to the medium would have assured their place in animation history, but while the studio was in full swing, the cartoons themselves were second to none. Many of the Popeye cartoons are rather formulaic—Popeye and Olive Oyl are bested by Bluto until a dose of spinach gives the edge to the squinting sailor—but they still have far more variety than the Coyote/Road Runner shorts and are often even more enjoyable. Even so, you can find just about any visual gag or cartoon joke ever pulled somewhere on the 31 cartoons in this set. There are also a few shorts that deliberately poke fun at their formulaic nature, such as “It’s the Natural Thing to Do,” where Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl attempt to act more refined in response to a complaint about the violence in their cartoons and fail to hilarious results.
To paraphrase Steve Martin, describing the joys of a Fleischer Studios Popeye cartoon with words is like dancing about architecture. The works more than speak for themselves. On the commentary track for “Stealin Ain’t Honest,” director Bob Jaques notes how the Popeye shorts were timed to music, slowly increasing in tempo as they unfold so that the slow and measured start of the shorts turns into a frantic spinach-powered free-for-all by the end. This holds true for even a longer film like Popeye’s version of “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp,” the double-length cartoon that is the only cartoon in color on this set. Unlike today’s standard, many of the Popeye cartoons here were fully animated before voice-actors were recorded, which is one reason why the storytelling and humor are so clear that they both still succeed marvelously with the sound off. This also gave the voice actors the chance for some entertaining and hilarious ad libs, which are still the trademark of the series. The casually tossed off mutterings provide some of the funniest lines in the shorts, and one of the funniest is also the most obscure, as Mercer tosses off quick a Magritte reference in “The Jeep.”
Finally, the Fleischer Popeye cartoons are also just flat-out astonishing on a technical level. The kind of visual creativity and seemingly effortless execution of even the worst of these shorts far outstrips what most other cartoons can ever hope to achieve. Even beyond the wonderfully creative cartoon mayhem, the Fleischer Popeye shorts squashed and stretched so much that the frame can barely contain them. Almost any other cartoon looks impossibly mannered and slow in comparison to even the least of the shorts on this disc. Not that there are any truly weak cartoons here—the low-tide marker starts at great and ends well past amazing. Watching any of the crazed fights may be fun, but seeing Popeye’s Pappy cutting a rug in “With Poopdeck Pappy” is a moment of pure, sublime joy for any lover of animation. The Popeye cartoons here also turn out to be made for DVD; pausing and stepping through the shorts frame-by-frame is about the only way you can fully appreciate the immense amount of effort and craft that went into one of these shorts. There’s no cheating anywhere; every single scene is animated in glorious detail, down to single-frame punches that whip by far too fast to catch in a typical Popeye/Bluto fight.
The documentaries and commentary tracks make it clear that the studio was on the wane as these cartoons were being made. The Fleischers moved the studio from New York City to Miami, Florida in 1938, which ensured the Fleischer’s short-term technical dominance through their custom-built state-of-the-art animation studio, but the move ultimately led to their downfall. The settings for many of these latter-day Popeye cartoons would move from overcrowded, seedy urban locales to houses in the country, losing a bit of what made Popeye such an appealing character in the first place. They would also begin to succumb to imitating rather than innovating—in this case, attempting to beat Disney at his own animation game, giving up detail and rambunctiousness for a more mannered visual and storytelling style. Even so, the latter cartoons of the studio (mostly on this set’s second disc) are still marvelous fun, with the vaudeville mugging and impersonations of “Puttin on the Act” giving us Popeye imitating Groucho Marx, and the magical Jeep torturing Popeye in “Popeye Presents Eugene, the Jeep” (both of which also break from the usual victory-through-superior-spinach formula of the Popeye shorts).
Popeye the Sailor Vol. 2 would be deserving of accolades just for presenting the cartoons themselves so well. All the cartoons look like they have been cleaned up and remastered, and they look absolutely terrific. However, Warner Bros. has included a raft of excellent special features, including select commentary tracks on key cartoons, one solid 40-minute documentary titled “Out of the Inkwell” chronicling the history of the Fleischer Studios, several short and fluffy “Popumentaries” about assorted characters or elements in the shorts, and a slew of shorter subjects, including a rare pencil test, a storyboard-to-film comparison, an early documentary on the process of animation at the Fleischer Studios in Miami, and even the classic Fleischer Superman cartoon “The Mechanical Monsters.” Two audio-only bonuses round out the extras—one less-than-impressive vintage Popeye recording and one excellent audio interview with Popeye voice actor Jack Mercer conducted by animator Michael Sporn. A few of the commentary tracks are little more than reciting the action on-screen, but the majority of them are wonderful and informative, and several include vintage audio clips of actual Fleischer Studios animators talking about the shorts. The net effect of all this bonus material is to place the Fleischer Popeye cartoons in their proper historical context, expanding and deepening one’s appreciation for them because they were so pioneering and innovative. All of this is packed into an efficient sleeve thinner than a standard DVD case. From start to finish, Popeye the Sailor Vol. 2 is a class act and already a contender for the best DVD boxed set of the year.
Popeye himself would live on in animation, although the characters and the cartoons would become more and more lifeless as time went on. Unfortunately, for an object lesson in how low Popeye could sink, you need look no further than Popeye & Friends Vol. 1, a single DVD containing 8 Popeye cartoons made by Hanna-Barbera from the late 1970’s. The disc contains literally nothing else—other than alternate language soundtracks, this DVD has no extras at all.
It is rather sad to see how the studio could fail to understand the joys of Popeye so thoroughly. The transformation from gritty urbanite to manicured suburbanite is complete here, as Popeye is reduced to mowing his lawn and dealing with a typical Hanna-Barbera sitcom alien in the first short, “Abject Flying Object.” Instead of inhabiting the city, he is reduced to being a tourist there in “Popeye Goes Sightseeing.” Only one of the 8 shorts here puts Popeye in a boat at all, and even then it’s closer to a yachting jaunt as he tutors his five nephews how to sail. These shorts are perfectly fine Hanna-Barbera sitcoms, but watching them right after the Fleischer shorts makes them look shockingly inferior as animation in general and as Popeye cartoons specifically. The difference is obvious if you compare the Fleischer’s “Plumbing is a ‘Pipe'” with Hanna-Barbera’s “Popeye the Plumber.” In both, Popeye is called on to service Olive Oyl’s leaky plumbing. Even though they share the same themes and even some of the same gags (like Popeye swimming upstream against a gushing pipe), the verve and visual wit in the Fleischer’s version makes the latter look like a pathetic joke. It doesn’t help that these cartoons seem to have received no remastering at all. Warner Home Video has not done anyone any great service by releasing this DVD, least of all to themselves. Consumers who have been trained by the Looney Tunes DVD releases may mistakenly think that Popeye & Friends is the equivalent of a Looney Tunes Spotlight Collection that abridges Popeye the Sailor. Anyone who gets this impression may never buy another Popeye DVD again after watching Popeye & Friends. If there is any marketing synergy to be gained by releasing these DVDs together, it will be of the type that discourages further purchases.
When I was younger, I’d watch Popeye cartoons on TV, although I can’t remember having any great love for them. Many members of my generation also remember Popeye as a cartoon character, although few if any had the same affection for the spinach-eating sailor as for Bugs and Daffy. Clearly, we were not watching the work of the Fleischer brothers (in my case, they were the AAP repackagings of the post-Fleischer Paramount Popeye cartoons), and that’s a real shame. If we had, Popeye could easily be as beloved as any of the other corporate cartoon icons of today. Thankfully, Warner Bros. is making this a real possibility with these remastered releases (the last of which will be released this September). The Fleischer’s Popeye shorts are sure to fix what ails you if you’re feeling burned out from today’s lackluster cartoons or are just seeking some good old-fashioned hand-drawn animation in the sea of CGI we’re drowning in.