Judge Victor Valdivia got a corncob pipe, but was disappointed when it didn't allow him to rocket through the water.
Our reviews of Popeye The Sailor Man Classic Cartoons: 75th Anniversary Collector's Edition (published August 30th, 2004), Popeye The Sailor: Volume One (1933-1938) (published August 22nd, 2007), and Popeye The Sailor: Volume Two (1938-1940) (published June 17th, 2008) are also available.
"That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more!"
Sadly, Popeye's statement might be closer to the truth in this case. While Popeye the Sailor: Volume Three (1941-1943) is compiled with the usual care and meticulousness that Warner Bros. used for the previous sets, this is, for many unfortunate reasons, the least satisfying collection of the series.
Facts of the Case
Here are the 31 cartoons collected on two discs:
By 1941, Max and Dave Fleischer, the brothers entrusted by Paramount studios with bringing Popeye to the big screen, were hitting a peak. The character was more popular than Mickey Mouse, the cartoons were drawing crowds and acclaim, and the Fleischers were being given opportunities in feature-length animation that matched their longtime rival Walt Disney. Unhappily, a series of calamities would befall the brothers and result in an unfortunate decline in the quality of the previously stellar Popeye series.
Actually, even before then, the Popeye cartoons were already starting to change in directions that weren't necessarily for the better, changes clearly evident in the cartoons on Disc One. The controversy over Popeye's violence and aggression had already led to a gradual softening of the character in previous cartoons. That softening was accelerated even more when the United States entered World War II and the Fleischers decided to enlist him in the U.S. Navy. Those wartime cartoons, many of which are collected on this set, are frankly rather disappointing. What made Popeye appealing was his blend of anarchic belligerence and cheerful humor. Forced to conform to military standards, he's just another sailor fighting off U-boats and Japanese bombers. These cartoons are repetitious, and the depictions of the Japanese seen here are shockingly racist. Even the ones that aren't offensive are simply not that humorous, and viewers may have a hard time getting through them. The war would have a far more personal effect on the Fleischers when their talented animator and director Willard Bowsky enlisted in the Army in 1942; he would eventually be killed in action in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. It would be one of many ordeals the Fleischers would go through during this period.
The Fleischers also made a creative miscalculation in attempting to develop characters of their own rather than using the characters depicted in E.C. Segar's original Thimble Theater comic strip. Introduced in the cartoons on this set, and used way too much, are Popeye's nephews Pip-Eye, Pup-Eye, Poop-Eye and Peep-Eye. These were wholly the Fleischers' creations, although it's painfully obvious that they're actually patterned after Donald Duck's nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Essentially, their gimmick is that they're miniature versions of Popeye who all complete each other's sentences, but that doesn't really make them particularly funny. Popeye already had a child character in Swee'pea that was far more endearing and amusing, so there was no need to bring in lesser new ones. There are also too many cartoons here with Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye's foul-tempered father. A little of this character goes a long way, making the cartoons (such as "Pest Pilot" and "Problem Pappy") built around him something of a chore to watch. Such previously welcome regulars such as Olive Oyl and Bluto are only occasionally present, and completely absent are other more entertaining characters like Wimpy and Eugene the Jeep. Again, it's evident that these newer characters were used to try to blunt Popeye's previously hard edge, but this was clearly a mistake, judging by the uneven quality of the cartoons here.
If the cartoons on the first disc are something of a letdown, the ones on Disc Two are at times downright painful. At the beginning of 1942, Paramount, citing budgetary concerns, forced the Fleischers out of their studio and took over production of Popeye cartoons themselves. "Baby Wants a Bottleship" was the last Popeye cartoon ever directed by the brothers, and it's ironically one of the funniest and most creative ones on this set. Starting with "You're a Sap, Mr. Jap," the remaining Popeye cartoons were directed by a rotating series of animators and directors, few of whom ever attained much success or acclaim here or elsewhere. Judging by these cartoons, it's easy to see why. While the post-Fleischer shorts have occasional flashes of inventiveness and wit, and "Alona on the Sarong Seas" is almost up to the standards of the Fleischer era, most of them are just not anywhere near the same league in quality. Even the weakest shorts on Disc One, for all their flaws, are unmistakably superior to most of the ones on Disc Two. If truth be told, the post-Fleischer cartoons actually magnify the flaws of the lesser Fleischer ones. By this point, Popeye is softened up enough that his adversaries are nothing more than a metal-eating goat (in "The Hungry Goat") and a woodpecker (in "Wood-Peckin'"). No other cartoons demonstrate just how far Popeye had gotten from his original rowdy roots. In retrospect, Paramount's move would end up looking shortsighted and destructive. Anyone looking for confirmation that corporate meddling in creative arts is almost always a mistake can use this DVD set as evidence.
Though the cartoons themselves are rather disappointing, at least this DVD package is remarkable. Warner Bros. has remastered the cartoons and while they do show their age, with scratches, flickering, and some fading here and there, it's hard to imagine how much better cartoons that are over sixty years old could possibly look. The Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mix is actually quite impressive, sounding surprisingly clear and crisp. You'll be able to hear all of Popeye's mutterings without having to turn up the volume.
The extras are also characteristically outstanding as well, although this set isn't quite as jam-packed as the previous two. Some cartoons have audio commentary with animation historians and directors (including Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi) and these are always worth hearing, as they contain fascinating insights and facts about the cartoons and how they were produced. The "Popumentaries" are brief featurettes addressing various aspects of Popeye in this period. "Directing the Sailor: The Art of Myron Waldman" (7:21) profiles one of the Fleischers' most talented directors and animators. "Popeye: The Mighty Ensign" (7:48) discusses Popeye's wartime shorts and details what effect war had on both the character and the people who animated him. "Pip-Eye, Pup-Eye, Poop-Eye and Peep-Eye: Chips Off the Old Salt" (3:41) explores these characters in depth. There are also various pre-Popeye Fleischer cartoons collected here. Disc One has three from the Out of the Inkwell series starring Koko the Clown, a series of silent shorts in which the Fleischers appear alongside an animated character. These are a bit hard to watch, because of their age, pacing, and lack of sound, but viewers who make the effort will be amazed at how clever and self-referential they are. Disc Two has another 1920s short, "Finding His Voice" (10:47), which explains the process matching sound to animation. It's more of a historical relic, as it's not really that humorous or charming. Finally, Disc Two adds "Forging the Frame: The Roots of Animation 1921-1930" (27:42), a look at the early days of animation before the advent of sound. This is an excellent featurette that animation fans will find immensely rewarding.
There's no reason for Popeye fans to pass this by. There are still enough moments of wit and energy here and there to make this worth getting, and as lackluster as some of the cartoons are here, they're still miles ahead of the dull Popeye retreads that came years later. Still, this is the weakest of the three Popeye collections Warner Bros. has put out to date, so while fans will still need this one, newcomers should start with either of the previous two.
Guilty of not living up to the quality of previous Popeye cartoons. Warner Bros., however, is acquitted by putting together a typically praiseworthy DVD package.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentaries on Selected Cartoons
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