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DVD SAVANT

Popeye The Sailor Volume 2
1938-1940


Popeye The Sailor Volume 2
Warners
1938-1940
B&W & Color
1:37 flat full frame
218 min.
Street Date June 10, 2008
34.98

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the DVD highlights of last year was the debut of the classic Max & Dave Fleischer Popeye the Sailor Man series. The wonderful B&W Popeye cartoons of the 1930s had all but disappeared in their original versions, replaced in syndication by inferior versions from later decades. This new two-disc compendium Popeye The Sailor Volume 2 continues the saga with 31 additional short subjects from the latter part of the decade, accompanied by a tall stack of worthy extras. The cartoons are funny, exciting and endearing -- and 100% American.

The popular Popeye will be appreciated even more after the retrospective offered by these DVD releases. Relegated to old TV 'cartoony' shows and eclipsed by the Disney media juggernaut, the stubbornly optimistic sailor was part of an animation legend every bit as important as the Mouse Factory. The Fleischer studio initiated most of the technical developments of 1920s animation and created a cartoon style completely its own.

Popeye's world is filtered through the experience of immigrant neighborhoods in New York, where life is rough and basic. The original Segar comic strip presented a jungle of weird characters mumbling in different foreign accents; most were belligerent. The Fleishers' filmic Popeye lives in a somewhat less violent neighborhood imbued with some of the magical properties of the earlier Out of the Inkwell and Betty Boop cartoons: reality is completely plastic. Nothing keeps its shape and fantastic transformations of everyday objects are the norm. An ordinary problem like bad plumbing cues a riot of bursting pipes that writhe around like snakes. The first requirement of most gags is that they violate a logical rule of science or nature.

Popeye is an ordinary guy with a permanent squint and an easygoing manner, at least until he runs out of patience. Alone among the weird characters, he observes and understands the problems of others. The adorably fickle Olive Oyl alternately badgers and worships Popeye but hasn't a clue about the big picture, while Wimpy and other neutral characters are basically single-minded and selfish. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Bluto, a brute who can't seem to win out over Popeye, no matter how many dirty tricks he pulls.

These 31 cartoons show the Popeye universe still functioning at a peak performance level. Extending the character beyond the basic Popeye-Bluto battle royale format gives the wisecracking sailor more opportunity to stretch his personality. The humor quotient remains as high as ever, with Popeye voice Jack Mercer slipping at least a dozen fractured-diction malapropisms into each cartoon. Mumbled as asides, these could be written at leisure during production or even ad-libbed.

The animation is also as expressive as before. Popeye's world doesn't 'bop' to the music beat as did the older Betty Boop cartoons, but they have more appeal to modern sensibilities than many of the Technicolor, storybook-prettified Disney cartoons of the era. Popeye's proletarian problems have more in common with modern comic art; Robert Crumb's perverse style isn't all that different. The Fleischer animators make clever use of rotoscoping (a Max Fleischer invention) and their work is just as accomplished as that of the Disney artists.

What sets Fleischer's Popeye films apart is their general disinterest in common notions of 'good taste.' The characters model bad manners of all kinds and the world is presented as illogical and absurd. Ethnic types abound, for the most part are depicted non-offensively. Olive is a sweetheart but like every other character is completely at the mercy of her emotions. Popeye has the patience of Job; in the cartoon Cops is Always Right the act of parking a car earns so many tickets from a policeman that Popeye eventually turns himself in to the jail. Popeye's father "Poopdeck Pappy" fails to recognize his own son, and Popeye and Olive repeatedly expose little Swee' Pea to dangerous situations. Speaking of good taste, is it ever made clear whose child Swee' Pea is? Or did I miss a cartoon that establishes him as an adopted orphan?

Some of the weird storylines seem to come from the same Depression-era surreal subconscious as King Kong: they clearly aren't consciously intended to have political significance, but beg to be interpreted just the same. The Wimpy-like useless plumber in Plumbing is a "Pipe" may be a slight aimed at labor unions. The very strange Leave Well Enough Alone shows Popeye liberating a store full of pets, and then rounding them up again when they fall prey to the dogcatcher. Is the cartoon a coded plea for isolationism? Less comprehensible is the subversive classic Goonland. Popeye sails to a forbidden island to rescue his Pappy from a civilization of mute, caveman-like 'Goons'. These cartoons weren't made by committee or submitted to any kind of approval gauntlet. They just are, and many of them are legitimate works of American art.

This Volume 2 Popeye collection splits its contents onto two discs. About a dozen of the shorts, listed below, have been given audio commentaries by animation experts. As the most common trait of animators is a fun personality, all of the tracks are cheerful and informative.

The short subjects:

Disc 1
I Yam Love Sick
Plumbing is a "Pipe"
The Jeep Commentary by Glenn Mitchell
Bulldozing the Bull Commentary by Paul Dini
Mutiny Ain't Nice Commentary by Greg Ford
Goonland Commentary by Glenn Mitchell
A Date to Skate Commentary by Michael Barrier & Gordon Sheehan
Cops is Always Right Commentary by Michael Barrier & Dave Tendlar
Customers Wanted Commentary by Eric Goldberg
Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp Technicolor Two-reeler
Leave Well Enough Alone
Wotta Nightmare Commentary by Jerry Beck
Ghosks is the Bunk
Hello, How Am I? Commentary by Mark Kausler
It's the Natural Thing to Do Commentary by Michael Barrier & Arnold Gillespie
Disc 2
Never Sock a Baby
Shakespearian Spinach
Females is Fickle
Stealin' Ain't Honest Commentary by Bob Jacques
Me Feelin's is hurt
Onion Pacific
Wimmin Is a Myskery
Nurse-Mates
Fightin' Pals
Doing Impossikible Stunts
Wimmin Hadn't Oughta Drive
Puttin On the Act Commentary by Daniel Goldmark
Popeye Meets William Tell Commentary by Greg Ford & Shamus Culhane
My Pop, My Pop
With Poopdeck Pappy
Popeye presents Eugene, the Jeep

The disc's posted 218-minute running time doesn't include an additional hour-plus of extras. An excellent long-form documentary on the Fleischer studio is accompanied by several short sidebar featurettes about specific characters and vocal talents. All are beautifully produced by New Wave. The Fleischer family has kicked in with other special content, including sketches made by Max Fleischer in 1897, pencil tests and a series of storyboards that have been organized to illustrate an entire cartoon.

Extras

Disc 1
Docu Out of the Inkwell: The Fleischer Story
"Popumentary" Eugene the Jeep: A Breed of His Own
"Popumentary" Poopdeck Pappy: The Nasty Old Man and the Sea
"Popumentary" O-Re-Mi: Mae Questel and the Voices of Olive Oyl
Disc 2
"Popumentary" Men of Spinach and Steel
Fleischer short Paramount Presents Popular Science
Fleischer short Superman: The Mechanical Monsters
Early Max Fleischer Art Gallery
Pencil Test Females is Fickle
Storyboard Reel Stealin Ain't Honest
Audio extra I'm Popeye the Sailor Man
Audio extra Interview with Jack Mercer, the voice of Popeye

This second Popeye disc set is just as good as the first volume. The cartoons are consistently funny in ways that haven't dated one iota. The transfer quality is consistently superb, and original title sequences have been restored to all but one or two of the shorts. The first disc takes a break from B&W shows with Aladdin and His Lamp, a Technicolor two-reeler of epic proportions.

The clips of earlier Fleisher work make us wish that a collection of original-quality Betty Boop cartoons could be collected for DVD ... with their musical accompaniment by legends like Cab Calloway. Popeye The Sailor Volume 2 is highly recommended.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Popeye The Sailor Volume 2 rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: all Excellent or practically so
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Card and plastic holder in Card Sleeve
Reviewed: June 21, 2008

Republished in cooperation with Film.com



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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