Not only does spinach make Judge Neil Dorsett a better writer, it gives him a healthy colon!
Our reviews of Popeye The Sailor: Volume One (1933-1938) (published August 22nd, 2007), Popeye The Sailor: Volume Three (1941-1943) (published November 10th, 2008), and Popeye The Sailor: Volume Two (1938-1940) (published June 17th, 2008) are also available.
Salaame, Salaame, Baloney!
Facts of the Case
VCI presents a two-disc compilation featuring one disc with nine Max Fleischer Popeye shorts, including the three color mini-features Sindbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp, and a second disc with 25 shorts from the second animated incarnation of Popeye, produced by Famous Studios between 1942 and 1957 (the disc focuses primarily on the mid-'50s). The disc is labeled "75th Anniversary Collector's Edition," but none of the cartoons involved are 75 years old; rather, the date is given from the character's inception in Thimble Theater, a comedic adventure comic strip by Elsie C. Segar that skyrocketed to tremendous popularity after the ornery sailor made his debut.
The tale of Popeye's translation is not one I shall relate in detail here; by now, we all know about Bluto's minimal involvement in the strip and Fleischer's restructuring of the wide-ranging adventure format into a violent and simple love triangle as the basis for simple gag comedy. These notions served Fleischer's purpose of providing a showcase for the animation itself, and have served audiences well for decades, as well as serving as a template for other producers of Popeye cartoons over the years.
The three half-hour color features, all directed by Dave Fleischer, are exceptions: Here Popeye (along with Bluto, at least sometimes) is put to work as an actor, along the lines of Mickey Mouse in The Sorceror's Apprentice. When I was growing up, these were staples of Saturday afternoon UHF television, and I still find them enjoyable now. Aladdin is the more interesting narrative, where Sindbad is essentially just a larger version of the old Popeye versus Bluto fight, writ larger and in character on Bluto's part. These are brilliant cartoons that have stood the test of time better than most others of their era, and—although sensitive viewers may take offense at some of the racial characterizations, standard for that day—every American should at least see them once. On the other hand, they do make me wonder what Fleischer could have done had he chosen to use the lengthy color pieces to adapt actual Thimble Theatre adventures. But never mind that, they are excellent for what they are. The animation on Sindbad, Ali Baba, and Alladin is spectacular; Fleischer arranged for photographic shoots of actual models to produce a smooth, many-layered and very deep-looking background for his shots. Animated elements also inhabit the far background. It's something to see. Anyway, these are the color films included. You also get:
• I'm in the Army Now
All of these black and white shorts have the same plot, with their titles largely being descriptive of the action. Popeye and Bluto are competing both professionally and for the affection of the elongated lady fair, Olive Oyl, and wage a personal war on a battlefield defined by their jobs. Popeye is eventually victorious through the timely application of his energy-boosting power food, spinach. The exception is Little Swee'Pea, which has Popeye menaced by an infant.
Less enchanting—in fact, downright trying—is the second disc, which has no longer features and therefore fits 25 separate cartoons, all from Famous Studios. For my money, the latter non-Fleischer Popeye cartoons, including the Famous Studios entries on the second disc of this set, represent an exploitation of Fleischer's greatness and always have seemed to me to be pass-offs, attempts to capitalize on the ongoing appeal of the earlier, more commonly remembered Fleischer shorts, in part simply by confusing the catalog. Add to that the fact that the later cartoons are not intended for general audiences as were the Fleischers, but rather firmly inhabit the field of children's fare, and I must say I find little to recommend about these cheap and bad-sounding shorts:
• Me Musical Nephews
The Famous Studios shorts bear no real originality, and little in the way of technical accomplishment (although they're professional enough). Nowhere in them will you find the equivalent of Wimpy chasing a live duck with a whirring hand-cranked meat grinder. That's not only because they have no real eye for creative imagery and weirdness; it's also because they're bony and gristly and not very appetizing.
The flip side of VCI's clear interest in presenting compelling material is their poor video mastering. I've got about five VCI discs of varying genres, and one consistent factor with their discs is that they treat DVD as a format directed toward old-fashioned television display. Sure, a lot of people still use older sets, but the point is that this demonstrates no forward thinking. Every VCI disc I've seen is, at best, competitive with laserdiscs from the very early '90s, and this Popeye compilation is no exception. Each of the cartoons is presented in an existing, pseudo-remastered NTSC transfer complete with 3:2 pulldown and very poor compression. These two factors bounce off each other to create an effect more than the sum of its parts; throw in the added factor that what's being compressed are the extremely discrete frames of animation, and you have a disc that is simply not worthy of the archival package it attempts to represent. Having seen a fine 16mm print of Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp in recent years, I can submit that the source materials used here were poor in the first place. The compression and NTSC artifacts then really screw up the picture something awful. That being said, it's still better to look at than most other video presentations of this material.
So how's the sound? Well, not great, but probably not as bad off. The tracks are tinny and high-pitched, but that's pretty much what we can expect of such old material—particularly if the masters are 16mm and therefore optically striped for sound, making them subject to the vagaries of the poor (source) picture. All very unfortunate; and more unfortunate, this is an average presentation from VCI, who seem to have their hearts in the right place on a lot of levels other than mastering quality. It is a perhaps unkind thing to say, but VCI is essentially in the way of a number of the movies that they release. It may simply boil down to a matter of budget, in which case it's even more painful to have to knock the underdog…but there it is. Every time I watch Dark Star or The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, I think how much better a job Anchor Bay would have done. Here, I found myself wishing for Criterion or Roan. The sailor might not be a big seller these days, but he deserves better than this.
VCI has also served up a strange little plate of extra features. First off, there's an extensive text foldout with several poster reproductions. As you move into the menus, these posters pop up again in the strangest "poster gallery" section I've ever seen: a camera tracks around a wall upon which the posters are hung together. Bizarre. There is also a commentary by Jerry Beck, billed as an "animation historian." Beck is not without insight, but his commentary duplicates much of what's in the foldout.
And just to be achingly clear, here's a new rule for everyone in the DVD game: Film animation should always be presented in progressive transfers. End of story. If you own a disc company and one of your engineers brings you an animation disc with an embedded 3:2 pulldown, fire 'em. MPEG-2 motion compression is bad enough on animation by itself without introducing duplicate half-frames and stuttering the motion. Remember, all set-top DVD players can generate a pulldown from a progressive image, all on their own, if they need to. Please, VCI, you are well-motivated people in your hunt for interesting movie rights. Back it up with some transfers and everyone will love you. Digital mastering is not a field where people can embrace the charm of a low-budget presentation or wax nostalgic for the limitations of old TV sets. You just have to pony up some bucks for film transfer, and that's all there is to it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What the hell are you bitching about, you A/V geek monstrosity? This is thirty-four Popeye cartoons for twenty bucks! What'n the sam hell did you expect? This thing is filling in for all those crappy public domain VHS tapes you used to see at the drugstore all the time with the poorly hand-drawn replica images of the characters, and you're complaining about stutter? To paraphrase the sailor himself, this DVD package is what it is…a reasonably rounded economy presentation of a handful of genuinely classic Popeye shorts along with a sampler of some less remembered material with the character. Good lord man, lighten up! So what if it looks bad? At least it's there. Is there really enough demand for Popeye to get a good remastering from an indie licensor? MGM or Warner might be able to throw away a remastering job on it, but they won't sink money into public domain stuff. No one else has stepped up to the plate, so VCI is offering the best Popeye available.
The Fleischer cartoons presented in this compilation are of unassailable archive value and have entertained children for generations. There is no ill to speak of them, even as they approach octogenarian stages. Max Fleischer was an animation genius. The Famous Studios era Popeye is far less valuable, making this a mixed bag, but it is jam-packed at twenty dollars. The poor video quality makes this disc much less than an archival presentation, but if one must have some Popeye, one must have some Popeye. For myself, this would take the form of reading actual Thimble Theatre strips, which I would recommend over any of the animated Popeye incarnations, including the greats of Fleischer. If you prefer the cartoons, or are interested in introducing Popeye to young children—and you are running a set-top DVD player on an older set—this disc has plenty going for it and the price is right.
Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl are free to pursue their strange and exploitive triangle, at least in most states. Sindbad the Sailor is convicted of looting. Aladdin's genie is sentenced to a month in a cage with Robin Williams. VCI is commended for their research into film history but will be fined for poor video quality. Court is in recess. DVD Verdict, huh? Must be one of those alphabetical legalesicals. Ug-ug-ug-ug!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Commentary on Color Shorts by Jerry Beck
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