For a character pushing 85 years of age, E.C. Segar's Popeye has aged just fine. Sure, this deceptively strong sailor man occupies a very small slice of the classic cartoon pie...but his charisma alone makes almost every incarnation of Popeye an enjoyable, entertaining experience. Perhaps the most polished and enduring (non-printed) version was seen during the 1930s and '40s as Popeye The Sailor Man, a series of theatrical shorts produced by Fleischer Studios. Featuring beautiful black-and-white artwork, a generous amount of fisticuffs and, yes, all the familiar Popeye elements, these 105 nuggets of classic animation still hold up perfectly today. In fact, they're so good that almost every resurrection of Popeye, from the oddball 1980 film to recent CGI outings, can't help but feel like riffs and variations on a single note.
Even so, other incarnations of the spinach scarfing sailor are worth more than a footnote. Paramount's Fleischer-free Famous Studios developed a new look for Popeye within the backdrop of WWII, complete with a white Navy uniform and all the propaganda you'd expect from war-themed cartoons. Two decades later, King Features Syndicate commissioned a new run of color Popeye animated shorts that retained his Navy garb and smoothed things over for younger audiences. Created for television syndication, this new version of Popeye the Sailor served up more than 200 shorts in just over two years...and chances are it's where most of today's audience were first introduced to the character. Featuring more familiar faces and stories from E.C. Segar's original strip, a renamed "Brutus" and a decidedly less violent tone, this slightly revised formula proved to be another popular success for the steamrolling Popeye franchise.
But do these vintage cartoons hold up more than 50 years later? Well, sort of. Viewers more familiar with the Fleischer shorts---especially via the excellent DVD releases from Warner Bros. several years ago---will be taken aback by the much less fluid animation featured in these six-minute adventures. Popeye the Sailor's extremely limited TV budget and production time constraints are obvious culprits...but visual handicaps aside, most audiences will become used to its particular look soon enough. Plot-wise, fans should know what to expect here: more often than not, Popeye is tricked by "Brutus" (no longer "Bluto" due to copyright reasons), he's down for the count, miraculously opens a can of
whoop-ass spinach and quickly evens the score. With lesser-seen characters like The Sea Hag, Eugene The Jeep and Rough House added in to the mix, a few stories also deviate from Popeye's typical formula. But the greatest strength of this animated series is, nonetheless, what it retains from earlier versions, including the terrific voice work by Jack Mercer (Popeye himself), Jackson Beck (Brutus) and Mae Questel (Olive Oyl).
Even so, the 1960s Popeye still can't hold a candle to the Fleischer shorts in almost every department, including the way it's been released on DVD. In comparison, these plain-wrapped discs are only available as part of Warner Bros.' Archive Collection, burned-on-demand in DVD-R format and served "as-is" with no extras to speak of. The good news is that the A/V presentation is solid and, with a few exceptions, the episodes are presented in chronological order. Volume One includes 72 shorts in all (roughly one-third of the 1960-62 series), which was sporadically produced by four different teams. This two-disc collection includes everything released through Paramount Animation (#1-63) and Gerald Ray Studios (#64-72).
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, these 72 made-for-television shorts look fairly decent for their age and the extremely limited budget. Though some colors appear faded and there's no shortage of dirt and debris during many scenes (including the opening credits), what we get here is of generally good quality overall. The image is very stable, line detail is consistently strong and there aren't any flagrant digital issues to speak of. This 1960s version of Popeye was never a visually ambitious production...but for what it's worth, these cartoons are quite watchable and look a little better than expected.
The audio fares even better...and though this Dolby Digital 1.0 mono presentation isn't exactly demo material, it's easily better than what they sounded like on Koch Vision's "75th Anniversary" collection. Dialogue, music and effects sound clean and crisp overall with only a few minor problems along the way, though I'd imagine the light hiss and occasional "thin" effects are undoubtedly source material issues. Fans should be pleased overall...but if I'd have one gripe with the audio presentation, it's that optional Closed Captions or subtitles have not been included. Not a huge surprise, but still disappointing.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, this basic menu interface is hardly ambitious...but it's clean and easy to navigate, so no biggie. Each six-minute short is presented individually and a handy "Play All" option is included for each disc. This two-disc set is packaged in a clear hinged keepcase and includes no slipcover or inserts...not even a listing of the cartoons! Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), there are no bonus features.
Though it pales in comparison to the black-and-white Fleischer theatrical shorts, this 1960s television relaunch of Popeye The Sailor is entertaining enough in small doses. It's unquestionably geared towards a younger audience: from the simplified (read: less violent) stories to the cheaper "limited animation", those who didn't grow up watching these animated shorts might have trouble adjusting to the changes. Even so, it's great to finally have one-third of the 1960-62 series on DVD, even if Warner Bros.' Archive Collection feels like a step below "official" status. Featuring a solid A/V presentation, the lack of extras is somewhat alleviated by the fact that there's well over six hours of animation here. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is a likable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.