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DVD Review: A Tale of Two Popeyes

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Warner Home Video continues its release of Popeye cartoons with two new DVD collections: Popeye The Sailor, Volume Two: 1938-1940, a two-disc set that continues the series by presenting the next 31 theatrical shorts produced by the Fleischer Studios, and Popeye & Friends, Volume One, eight cartoons from Hanna-Barbera’s All-New Popeye Hour that ran from 1978-1981 on CBS Saturday mornings.

The difference between the two products is astounding, although I am admittedly biased because I hold the Fleisher cartoons in very high esteem, so to give Popeye & Friends a fair chance I received input from my nine-year-old nephew Sobrino Poco Loco to learn how the material fares with the age group it was geared towards.

Although the amount of content is cut in half from the previous release due in part to the restoration process, Popeye The Sailor, Volume Two still finds the talented men of the Fleischer Studios producing very funny, well-drawn cartoons even with all the changes behind the scenes. The studio moved from New York to Florida for tax breaks and to get away from the union. Mae Questel didn’t want to move so other actresses took over the voice of Olive. Gus Wickie, the original voice of Bluto passed away in 1938, which likely explains the character’s absence from the first eight cartoons and his limited involvement in “Customers Wanted,” which finds Wimpy watching bits from previous shorts. Pinto Colvig, a major cast member at Disney who provided the voices for Goofy, Sleepy, Grumpy and Practical Pig from “Three Little Pigs,” replaced Wickie.

Over the course of these 31 cartoons, the series introduces more characters from E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre. Poopdeck Pappy, the Goons, and Eugene the Jeep all made their debuts, although the Jeep is introduced twice and the stories contradict each other. Popeye introduced him to Olive in “The Jeep” (1938) explaining, “The Jeep's a magical dog and can disappear and things.” In “Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep” (1940), Popeye receives the creature as a gift from Olive.

Aside from the usual sight gags and Jack Mercer’s hysterical ad-libs for Popeye, the humor seemed to expand its range as I couldn’t remember the fourth wall being blatantly broken in Volume One. In “Goonland” Popeye attempts to rescue Pappy from the island. During the climatic fight, the film breaks, sending the Goons tumbling away, and an animator pins it back together. In “A Date to Skate,” Popeye is without spinach until a silhouetted audience member throws him a can to save the day.

The extras match the high caliber from Volume One and include a documentary about the Fleischers, shorter features on Eugene, Poopdeck Pappy, Questel and the voices of Olive Oyl, and a look at who was America’s first hero: Popeye or Superman. There are also a couple of Flesicher shorts, a pencil test, a storyboard reel that you can compare side by side with the finished “Stealin Ain’t Honest,” and audio-only bonuses of a great interview with Mercer and a vintage Popeye Recording.

For The All-New Popeye Show Mercer returned as Popeye and Marilyn Schreffler and Allan Melvin became the new voices of Olive Oyl and Bluto, respectively. (Questel auditioned for Hanna-Barbera, but they passed on her.) The cartoon fails because the stories and animation are terrible. There’s not much humor and the violence is toned down. The drawings don’t look good, the movement is stilted, and the image isn’t clear in the transfer. My eyes and head hurt watching these cartoons. 

After sitting down with Sobrino Poco Loco and with no prompting from me, he found the cartoons on Volume Two better and stated he probably would watch them again. The reasons he gave were “funnier, more fighting” and throughout he kept wondering about the results of a fight between Popeye and the Hulk. He found it weird that the film broke in “Goonland” and how things were different such as the cop directing traffic instead of street lights. He especially liked the one color cartoon “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp,” which was different from the previous color two-reelers in that they didn’t use the Fleischer Tabletop 3D background process.

Popeye & Friends got a mixed reaction from Sobrino Poco Loco. He said he would “maybe” watch them again, although he gave them two thumbs down because he found them a little too weird with the inclusion of aliens and talking animals. He also stated they were “too short, way different, not funny,” proving what an insightful young man he is.

Completists will want to know Disc 1 of Popeye The Sailor, Volume Two contains two cartoons (“Customers Wanted” and “Hello, How Am I?”) with A.A.P.-created Popeye title cards that have alternate opening credit sequences. Warner Home Video is willing to replace the disc with those cartoons having the original opening credits sequence. Consumers can call 1-800-553-6937 to get a self-addressed stamped envelope sent to them. Replacement discs will take approximately 8-10 weeks.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS