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Popeye the Sailor: Volume 1 DVD Review

Popeye the Sailor: Volume 1

August 10, 2007

Director: Dave Fleischer,
Starring: William Costello, Jack Mercer, Mae Questel, William Pennell, Gus Wickie, ,

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DVD Review

Fans of the original Fleischer brothers animated Popeye short films can throw away their crappy bootlegs and VHS copes because the folks at Warner Brothers have out done themselves with this new, four-disc set that features 60 theatrical shorts painstakingly re-mastered. They have never looked better. You’ll be amazed at the clarity and sharpness of the transfers. And if that weren’t enough, hours of extras have been assembled, including audio commentaries, documentaries and vintage short films from the studio vaults.

Each short features the same basic premise: Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl, is terrorized by someone, quite often his arch-nemesis, Bluto. Popeye intervenes and is beaten up for his troubles. Then, the sailor eats some spinach and gets the strength to beat Bluto to a pulp. The genius of the Fleischers is that within this formula they were able to generate all kinds of variations that usually involved a change in setting or antagonist. For example, in “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” Olive works at a circus as a trapeze artist and Popeye must master this act if he’s to save his girlfriend from a lecherous trapeze artist.

These shorts are certainly products of their times with sexist attitudes (Olive is always getting into trouble and always needs to be rescued) and racist depictions of African Americans and Native American Indians. “Beware of Barnacle Bill” features a racy song (for the times) at its centre and so the Fleischers had to tone it down for the censors.

The Fleischer brothers were technical innovators and this is readily evident in these shorts. They were the first to use three-dimensional backgrounds and the first to use sound on film, even before Disney. While the bulk of the Popeye short films were done in black and white, two special ones, twice in length (called two reelers), were rendered in glorious Technicolor and included on this set. “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor” is an incredible achievement that really shows off the Fleischers technical mastery of the form. It is as good as anything Disney ever made.

The opening shot is of Sindbad’s island and then the camera moves into get a better look. This was a technique that the Fleischers pioneered. We are introduced to Sindbad and as he swaggers through his island, he is featured in the foreground while a snake moves around in the middle ground and then we can scenery in the background. It is this kind of ambitious scale that is incredible to see being done back in the 1930s! Sindbad spots Popeye, Wimpy and Olive on a boat and has one of his minions – a huge bird – kidnap Olive and sink the ship, leaving Popeye and Wimpy for dead. They survive and land on the island where Popeye proceeds to defeat all of its monstrous inhabitants and rescue Olive.

The other Technicolor short on this set is “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves.” Popeye is a sentry for the Coast Guard and is ordered on a mission. He hops in a speed boat with Wimpy and Olive in tow. The boat quickly turns into a plane but crash lands somewhere in the Middle Eastern desert. They all barely escape and run afoul of Ali Baba and his thieves. Again, the three-dimensional sets are on glorious display here. Even a nearby radio comes to life as it dramatically warns Popeye of Ali Baba. The final showdown in his secret, cavernous lair is impressively staged.

Special Features:

On the first disc, eight of the shorts feature audio commentaries by animators, historians and directors. On “Popeye the Sailor,” historian Michael Barrier gives a brief history of Popeye and points out how the characters’ movement matches the rhythm of the music. Fleischer animator Dave Tendlar talks about how every scene had to have a gag. Animators Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua deliver an enthusiastic commentary on “Blow Me Down!” They talk about the depictions of Mexico, the caricatures of its people and its possible influence on Spaghetti Westerns.

“I Yam What I Yam: The Story of Popeye the Sailor” takes a look at the history of Popeye. He was born out of the end of World War I as a comic strip and became popular during the Great Depression because people needed escapist fare with an underdog as hero. This doc traces his development over the years and what inspired the four main characters.

Also included are two “Popeye Popumentaries.” One takes a look at the original comic strip and its creator, E.C. Segar. The other examines the appeal of Olive Oyl and how she was depicted over the years.

”From the Vault” includes three Bray Productions short films. These are vintage, done before sound with very a basic style of animation.

There are seven shorts on the second disc that feature commentary tracks. Historian Jerry Beck does one for “You Gotta Be a Football Hero” where he talks about the use of foreground and background characters. He also mentions this short’s historical significance – it was the last time William Costello would provide the voice for Popeye. He also talks about the talented animators behind-the-scenes and what happened to them.

“Forging the Frame: The Roots of Animation, 1900-1920” examines animation in its infancy and its origins in the 19th century. This is an excellent look at how this artform developed and takes a look at pioneers like Winsor McCay, who many call the father of animation.

Also included are two “Popeye Popumentaries” with one focusing on Wimpy and his place in the Popeye universe. He was a burger addict and would do anything for one. The other featurette takes a look at several of the people who provided the voice for Popeye.

“From the Vault” includes three classic shorts from Productions/Sullivan Studio.

Four of the shorts on disc three feature commentary tracks. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, director Eddie Fitzgerald and cartoonist Kali Fontecchio do one for “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor.” John K. points out that the style of animation is more cartoony than the Disney style at the time. Unlike Disney, the Fleischers’ showy style serviced the story. Eddie oohs and ahhs over the visuals, in particular Olive Oyl, while John K. tends to dominate the track.

Also included are two “Popeye Popumentaries” with one examining the role music plays in the Popeye cartoons. Music in these shorts tells us what to feel and think whether we are conscious of it or not. The other featurette takes a look at the two colour shorts. They were longer and therefore riskier to do but paved the way for feature-length animation.

“From the Vault” features six vintage Out of the Inkwell animated short films.

Three short films from the fourth disc feature commentary tracks. John K. and co. return for “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves” They crack jokes and have a good time watching this short. Eddie continues his obsession with Olive Oyl while John K. points out the bits of dialogue that the voice actors improvised.

Also included are two “Popeye Popumentaries” with one examining the character of Lil’ Swee’ Pea while the other one takes a look at Bluto. We learn both their respective histories. In the comic strip, Bluto was merely a minor character but the Fleischers really liked him and used him in their shorts.

Finally, “From the Vault” features four Out of the Inkwell/Fleischer Studio shorts.

Rating: 99%

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