Popeye the spinach-eating sailor is an animation icon known the world over for his adventures, many of which involve fighting his arch-nemesis Bluto over the hand and honor of Olive Oyl, who didn’t always deserve it due to her occasional two-timing ways. The cartoon series is finally getting the treatment it deserves with Warner Brothers’ impressive Popeye The Sailor, Volume One, a four-disc set that not only presents the first 60 Popeye cartoons from the original masters, but after watching the extensive and informative Special Features, the viewer might qualify as an animation historian.
Popeye first appeared in 1929 in Elzie Crisler Segar’s comic strip Thimble Theater. He then made the jump to the silver screen through the talents of Fleischer Studios, run by the brothers Max and Dave. It was a perfect match as Popeye went on to become Fleischer’s biggest star. At the time all the other animation studios’ stars were anthropomorphic animals while Fleischer’s popular characters were humans, Koko the Clown and Betty Boop. In fact, Popeye’s screen debut in 1933 was billed as a Betty Boop cartoon although she only appeared briefly, recreating her hula dance from Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle.
Fleischer’s animation was great. The images are well drawn and the animators were able to create depth in the shots by painting the backgrounds slightly out of focus. There’s a lot of movement on screen as well as plenty of gags. Three Technicolor two-reelers adapted from stories from Arabian Nights showed off their skills as Popeye and the gang were drawn into three-dimensional models. The creative team consistently made a lot of terrific choices and did exceptional work.
William Costello was the first voice of Popeye, but for reasons unclear animator Jack Mercer replaced him on King of the Mardi Gras in 1935 and performed the voice until 1978. He brought the character to new comedic heights. The audio was recorded after the cartoons were drawn, so actors would improvise lines that weren’t lip-synched. Mercer’s improvisations were funny while Costello’s were straightforward. There was one other man who voiced Popeye. Floyd Buckley, the voice of Popeye on the radio, appeared in 1935’s Be Kind To ‘Aminals’. Filling out the love triangle, William Pennell played Bluto from 1933 to 1935 and then Gus Wickie took over. Olive Oyl was played by a number of actresses, including Mae Questal, the voice of Betty Boop.
The 60 cartoons alone would be worth owning, but the Special Features put this collection in the “DVD Set of the Year” category. The commentary tracks are created by an array of people. We hear from animation historians like Michael Barrier and Jerry Beck and animation creators like El Tigre’s Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua, who watched Popeye when they were kids in Mexico. There is even old audio from interviews of people who worked at Fleischer like Mercer and animator Dave Tendlar. The most interesting and most annoying commentaries are by Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, animator Eddie Fitzgerald, and cartoonist/student/groupie Kali Fontecchio, who annoyingly contributes fawning giggles at almost everything they say. Kricfalusi had a lot to offer, but it’s too bad Fontecchio couldn’t have checked her giddiness, so the rest of us could have enjoyed our limited time with him.
Documentaries on each disc put Popeye and animation into historical perspective. I Yam What I Yam is a great 43-minute retrospective about Popeye with some of the commentary contributors are the likes of cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman’s Popeye, Mort Walker of Beetle Bailey, voice actor Billy West, and Tom Hatten, who used to host Popeye and his Friends in Los Angeles. Forging The Frame: The Roots of Animation 1900-1920 features Bill Plympton, Ray Harryhausen, and Terry Gilliam. “Popeye Popumentaries” focus on all things Popeye: Segar’s strip, the other characters including Wimpy and Swee’Pea, the voices of Popeye, the music, and the Popeye color two-reelers. There is even clarification to why Bluto became Brutus.
Old-time animation fans should enjoy the “From the Vault” features. Six Bray Productions silent films from the teens star characters such as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff. Nine Out of the Inkwell shorts from the ‘20s have live action interacting with Koko the Clown, a character derived from Max Fleischer’s invention of the rotoscope.
Eugene the Jeep appears on the DVD packaging but isn’t in a short until 1940. However, he might very well have appeared in a cartoon, but chose to remain invisible as there were no orchids around.
The second volume of Popeye cartoons from Warner Home Video is scheduled for release in November 2007.