Tuesday, July 2, 2019

What I like about DISNEY!

Welcome to the depths of evil.

Greetings, cartoon pals. I’m back on this July afternoon rummaging around the old bones of Uncle Johns Crazy Town. And bag of bones it is. Some of the writing here is barely at the level of a high school essay competition. Still, I don’t regret being a booster for favourite studios of the 30’s. These days it’s almost all online for the asking. But what’s one more bone, give or take? I’ll place it carefully between the old work boot and empty can of beans. 


Over the years  of my posting here I liked to single out Disney for criticism. This was primarily to provide counter narrative to the tale that the company, and some of it's more fervent admirers, like to tell. In that version animated cartoons were basically created by the Disney studios after some primitive experiments and forgettable predecessors. This in turn caused the studio to create the best animated cartoons ever. It’s a preposterous notion that I delighted in poking at. But it might give the impression that I dislike Disney altogether. T’aint so, McGee. It just so happens I have a very specific liking for Disney.  And what better way to dump an opinion then into the bottomless pit of the internet?  Fascinated? Read on. Don't like it? Hitch the next box car.





 In the Great Animation Sweepstakes of the 30’s Disney had an early lead. Steamboat Willie was not necessarily better animated than other cartoons of 1928. Bill Nolan’s work was  about as good as Iwerks. And Dick Huemer’s animation was arguably superior to both. It's actually a pretty lame cartoon compared to the other Iwerks' Mickeys. What it cemented though was not only audience acceptance for sound but a taste for more.  It payed off big time for the independently financed Disney studio and put the cartoons (and Mickey in particular) into a popular lead. Everybody remembered the first time a cartoon ‘talked’ (squeaked?) and who that character was.  Probably didn't hurt that  there was a strong magazine and newspaper presence for Mickey practically right from the start. 

Still getting booked a year after 'Steamboat Willie' was released. 1929 ad.

What followed was what I consider the classic Iwerks period of Disney. I won’t be discussing those as, to my eyes they share a closer bond with his Celebrity/Pat Powers  cartoons despite most of those being animated by others. Needless to say, I like the whole of Iwerks animation career but would rather limit the scope of observations specifically to the 1931-1939 period at Disney: a period often glossed over by guys like animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson as  both primordial and yet superior to the cartoons of all other studios. Geez, Walt must have gotten those loyalty oaths signed in blood!  

One of the last Disney Iwerks cartoons 'Springtime' (1929) actually LOOKS like it was animated while walking out the door!

Iwerks' first Celebrity Productions' Flip the Frog cartoon: 'Fiddlesticks' (1930) 

The truth is that Disney cartoons of the immediate post-Iwerks period are a shaky lot. Does anyone hold up ‘Babes in the Woods’ as a leading cartoon of 1932? Is 'King Neptune' really better than what the Van Bueren studio was cranking out at the same time? I’d say you already know the answer. In researching for a lecture last year I found myself suffering through a glut of 1932 Mickey Mouse cartoons wondering how the hell anybody could sit through these. Other studios delighted in surprise gags or surreal touches which gave them an almost improvisatory feeling. This is part of why they hold up so well. Mickey's painfully linear cartoons are, by comparison, strictly cartoon Xanax.

Disney's really bad year: 'Babes in The Woods' (1932)

The magic of Pluto: 'The Mad Dog' (1932)

Not better drawing but livelier action and better music: 'Pots and Pans' (Van Bueren Studio, 1932)

Meanwhile Fleischers was already getting into dynamic shots like this: 'Betty M.D.' (1932)

Still, I like me some Disney and I’ll tell you why. True that I’m smitten with 30’s animation but I still love a beautifully rendered static cartoon drawing.  Disney must have shared the fetish since starting in the mid-30's the animated cartoons often seem as obsessed with the quality of the individual drawings as the motion of the characters. By that I mean not only were the key poses  rendered on-model but the in-betweens too. This had to have meant scenes were going back to assistants or animators over and over until they had a folder of ‘uniform’  drawings to put before the camera. What ever the cause, the Disney shorts of the 30's suffer a stiffness of movement that didn't begin to abate until the latter part of the decade.  Still,  goddamn if it didn’t produce some beautifully rendered drawings.



By 1935 Disney began pulling the fat from the fire.  'Cock O' the Walk'  has some nice animation but there are scenes like the ones above where the movement gets really choppy. So, what happened? 


Another cartoon that runs variably stiff but has great drawings is 1935's  'The Golden Touch'  How could anyone dislike King Midas' 'greedy dance' (above)?  Plus the cartoon introduces Disney's greatest character ever: Goldie! 

A dynamic shot from 'Mickey's Man Friday' (1935) demonstrates a knack for Layout: another area in which Disney excelled as the 30's wore on.

I can't talk about Disney high points of the 30's without mentioning  'Toby Tortoise Returns' (1936). It didn't hurt that a good chunk of it was done by master animator Dick Huemer. It's still a little too measured for it's subject (especially compared to the boxing entries of other studios) but overall it's a great cartoon in layout, effects and animation.


 Like Warner Brothers, Disney didn't really hit their stride until the late 30's. Some of the best Donald Duck cartoons were made around this time such as  'The Sea Scouts' (1939).  The series would fall into a rut in the years to come in cartoons featuring such regrettable characters as Spike the Bee and Chip and Dale.

Another aspect of the cartoons where there was no other like Disney was  effects animation.  The first film to achieve realistic effects,  Winsor McCay’s ‘Sinking of the Lusitania’ (1918), gets it wrong  about as much as it does right.  Still, some of the wave animation in it is astonishing for such an early film.  After McCay, effects animation turned to a more graphic, newspaper influenced approach until guys like Cy Young and Ugo D’orsi (at Disney) finally cracked the code. The effects sequences that followed were both beautiful and profoundly influential.  Effects heavy Silly Symphonies like 'The Old Mill' and 'Moth and the Flame' set the stage for things like 'Fantasia'.  Pretty well any effects animation you see today is following in the footsteps of what was pioneered here. 



The first believable effects animation: Winsor McCay's 'Sinking of the Lusitania' (1918)

Disney was great at using effects to convey atmosphere.  'The Old Mill' (1937) is definitely what I'd qualify as an 'egg timer' cartoon.  I can't believe what was passed over for this to win best animated short. But the injustice of that shouldn't detract from a pleasant piece of cinematic wallpaper. Great to put on while making a sandwich or dusting the hydrangeas. 



By 1938 the Disney studio was so confident in what they were doing that they were able to make a special effect into a character in the impressive 'Moth and the Flame'.

Another area of Disney dominance was in the area of promotion and merchandise. From books to games to the venerable Mickey watch: there was no studio who focused as much on the quality, and even ubiquity, of their merch. The one studio who did attempt to compete, Charles Mintz' Scrappy, was too scattershot and increasingly disconnected as the films themselves grew worse, and less popular, over the latter part of the 30’s. If one also counts Floyd Gottfriedson’s masterfully drawn Mickey Mouse strip and the radiant posters which accompanied the films one quickly sees what an amazing body of work it is. The animated cartoons may have sucked but the products promoting them always looked great.

Personally I prefer 'Three Little Wolves' (1936) to 'Three Little Pigs' (1933) but there's no denying the influence the original had on generations of cartoon wolves: from Tex Avery to Famous Studios.

Masterfully drawn but kind of a dull read. Still, Floyd Gottfriedson's strip looked great.

The cartoon sucks ... but how can you not love this poster?!

The 'fly in the ointment' ... or their greatest strength (depending on personal taste I guess)  was Disney's unique 'balletic/operatic' approach to animation. Balletic for their softness and grace.  And operatic for the melodrama the films sometimes revelled in. It's exquiste, in it's way, but not appropriate for everything. Comedy always buckled under the weight of such self serious artistes. But in the context of a deliberate ballet, as was done with Fantasia, the result is an astonishing hybrid. No other studio would or could have made a film like this.   

Perfectly suited to a style: 'Fantasia' (1940)


I won’t go too deeply into the features since Disney only produced one in the 30’s: Snow White. Intellectually I can see what the fuss is about. But personally I find it nearly impossible to sit through the whole thing.  As insane as it sounds I actually prefer Fleischer’s somewhat disastrous Gulliver's Travels!   It's rougher and full of mistakes but I somehow engage better with the characters and music despite the giant roto-man. In short: I can get through it. So, that's not exactly high praise either. That being said, I’ve always felt shorts were the best delivery system for animated cartoons. My favourites among the Disney features tend towards the 'package pictures' (features made up of individual shorts) as were films like Melody Time, Make Mine Music, Three Caballeros and the aforementioned Fantasia


Sure the film has some nice sequences like those with the witch or the evil queen. But I prefer things like that excerpted. The movie as a whole is just too much of a slog.

Sniffy, Snotty, Weepy and ...


wait, how'd you get in here?

Bottom line is that every animation studio of the 30’s had something to recommend it. Even the crude 1930's Terrytoons had their own propulsive charm. For Disney the 30's marked a crucible not a landslide victory. What they brought to animation was a unique brand of theatrical lyricism. There was no other studio quite like them. That didn't make them the best but it did make them unique; and that uniqueness is worth noting.  Sure, the cartoons could be kind of boring but even a fifth or sixth favourite ice cream is still ice cream.  If you're in the right mood there’s some cool stuff in there. Personally I'm glad they're out there. I could go on but I have to cue up some Goldie. God help me.

Toodle-Oo.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Animated Antiques

Can we talk for a second? Here, pull up a chair.  It's about Fleischer Studios' Animated Antics. I should probably tell you that I've already boarded the windows and bolted the doors so escape is impossible.  .... But back to the Antics. This obscure cartoon series that ran from 1940-1941 has been regarded as one of the weakest the studio ever produced. There's something to the criticism. When one views a cartoon like "The Dandy Lion" (the first Antic produced) and compares it to other cartoons of 1940, particularly those of Warners, it's clear these cartoons are not going to break ground for anyone.  Still, they aren't that bad. In fact, a few of 'em are pretty good.

This trade ad contains possibly the least enthusiastic ad copy ever. Plus nothing says excitement like mauve.


Fleischer's Miami studio building is now evidently used as a police station. So, perps are getting roughed up where Gabby cartoons were once made. Not sure what to think about that one.

One way to better understand the Animated Antics is to understand the situation which prevailed at Fleischers at the time. While Warners had found strong creative footing based on anarchistic comedy and Disney on sentimental stories with ever more realistic animation, the Fleischers trudged on  in search of a hit. Popeye, their most successful series, remained as popular as ever but that character was owned by somebody else: King Features Syndicate.  The surreal style that had defined the best (and funniest) Fleischer cartoons of the early 30's was considered 'old hat'  by 1940 . So that was out. Betty Boop, the Fleischers' next most successful character after Popeye, had been retired in 1939. So,there was a clear need for a strong new character to fill the void. But was there a will?

Fleischer writing staff hard at work on the script for "Twinkletoes in Hat Stuff"

One difference was that at Fleischers there was no powerful consensus shaping the overall creative direction of the studio. No Walt or Tex Avery here. Animators instead contented themselves with producing high quality cartoon animation  at the behest of whatever story content had been decided first: good, bad or indifferent. Fleischers did have a staff of writers but there doesn't seem to have been a  strong impetus to corral them in any particular direction. Another problem was a seeming inability to decide exactly what kind of cartoons the studio produced: sweet sentimental films like the Color Classics or rough and tumble slapstick like Popeye.  It was a piece meal system that sometimes made for a schizophrenic selection of cartoons. 


Another factor may have been over extension. Fleischers was a studio that prided itself on hitting deadlines on or below budget. In this way they felt they could needle Disney whom they viewed as financially irresponsible. When one considers the number of Fleischer series in production in 1940 (Popeye, Stone Age Cartoons, Animated Antics, Color Classics, Gabby Cartoons as well as the full length feature Mr. Bug Goes To Town) it is something short of amazing that any of them turned out as good as they did. The predicament of keeping a full crew working on a feature while trying to meet a normal year's worth of  short subjects (something Disney knew to avoid) meant the studio was short staffed. So, big salaries were offered to lure talent from  New York and the west coast in order to handle the extra workload. Financially Max was digging himself in.


So, it's amidst this chaos that The Animated Antics were created. And yet, even a lowest ebb and thinnest resources, the quality of the animation rarely wavered below a certain level. Whatever you may feel about the stories of the Fleischer cartoons they always managed to feature skillful  animation. Besides, The Animated Antics offer more hits than misses in my opinion. F'instance....

Nice animation but a very Disney-like cartoon. Ad for 'The Dandy Lion' (1940)


Lilliputian Warden and The Three Spies in 'Triple Trouble' (1940) 

'The Dandy Lion' was the first Animated Antic to be released and was directed by Shamus Culhane and lead animated by Al Eugster.  It lifted elements from Disney's Hiawatha and stylistically it was a little too Disney-like for a Fleischer cartoon. All the same it does contain some nice animation from Eugster and crew and is worth more than a passing look. The second Culhane directed Antic 'Triple Trouble' was a cartoon starring The Three Spies (villain characters from 'Gulliver's Travels') with a jail break as it's central story line. This one was  lead animated by Nick Tafuri and is my personal pick for best Gulliver stand-alone cartoon. 

Cute parrots sure weren't anything new to animated cartoons by the early 40's. Still, a capably done cartoon: ad for 'Twinkletoes Gets The Bird' (1940)

Mad Bomber character from 'Twinkletoes: Where He Goes Nobody Knows" (1941)

Twinkletoes model sheet from 'Gulliver's Travels'

Meanwhile Dave Tendlar's crew took to expanding Twinkletoes, a minor character from  Gulliver's Travels, into a series of his own. A 'pinch hitter' among Fleischer directors, his cartoons often contained some of the strongest Fleischer animation of the late 30's.  The first of his Antics, 'Twinkletoes Gets The Bird'  benefits thusly (with help from Lead Animator Tom Golden) but suffers from a somewhat purile story about a cute parrot. Tendlar's unit was a perfect example of a crew that could handle cute as well as rougher slapstick cartoons. Such was the liquid stylistic approach of the Fleischers and the journeyman attitude of it's animators. Tendlar's second Antic 'Twinkletoes: Where He Goes Nobody Knows' is more successful (and funnier) than the first cartoon and represents one of the stronger entries in the series. It was lead animated by former Van Bueren-ite Steve Muffati.

 "Greetings gate! Would you like to Investigate?" Cult fave 'Wizard of Arts' (1941)

'Zero the Hound' (1941)

Tom Johnson's Animated Antics eschewed Gulliver spinoffs to instead concentrate on original one-off cartoons in the manner of what the Noveltoons would later be. His three swings at The Animated Antics: 'Bring Himself Back Alive',  'Zero the Hound' and 'Wizard of Arts' constitute two hits and a miss in this viewer's opinion. Like Tendlar, Johnson was a highly reliable and excellent director of many of the best Fleischer cartoons of the late 30's. Even his Wiffle Piffle Screen Songs looked great! However, 'Bring Himself Back Alive' feels rushed to me and the resulting queasiness is a feeling I've never detected in any other Johnson cartoon. As I said, just my opinion. "Zero the Hound", a standard duck hunter scenario worthy of 'Wacky Quacky' (don't ask), puts things on an even keel again with solid lead  animation by Frank Endres and crew. Everything hits pretty well in this cartoon which ends up being a strong entry to the series. 'Wizard of Arts' represented a career move for it's lead animator Jack Ozark who received his only Fleischer screen credit for this film.  A series of pun based gags based on an artist's sculptures it's one of the Antics' funniest.


 Nicely animated though somewhat interminable. I'm none the less happy it is being preserved. 'Copy Cat' (1940)


Drawings like this crack me up. The entertainingly weird "Twinkletoes in Hat Stuff' (1941)

Myron Waldman's two contributions, 'Copy Cat' and 'Twinkletoes in Hat Stuff' are not what I would call among his best cartoons. Where Waldman shone, as I see it, was in Color Classic cartoons such as the superb  'All's Fair at the Fair' and 'Hawaiian Birds'. While well animated (lead animation credited to William Henning)"Copy Cat" suffers a saccharine plot about a kitten's attempt to catch the most annoying cutesy mouse since Chuck Jones' Sniffles. It was recently  revealed that the negative for this cartoon has been discovered and is in line for a major restoration. Any professional restoration of a Fleischer cartoon should be met with bended knee IMO, and this is no exception, but I only wish it were another example. Waldman's other entry into the series, 'Twinkletoes in Hat Stuff' was the funnier cartoon of the two featuring a really weird looking Twinkletoes. Lead animation here provided by Sam Stimson.

Not a Fleischer cartoon.

'Pop and Mom in Wild Oysters' wasn't a Fleischer cartoon at all but was instead a stop motion film purchased from the Charlie Bowers Studio.  Such was the desperation of Fleischers to fill their quota. For comparison Disney released 14 short cartoons in 1940  with a feature in production while Fleischers released 37 shorts while working on their own feature: Mr. Bug. Whew.

'Mommy Loves Puppy' (1940)

Evocative scene of the spies making off through a forest with King Little's chest. "Sneak, Snoop and Snitch' (1940)

Lastly, Willard Bowsky's 'Mommy Loves Puppy' was a pretty crass attempt to mimic a Waldman style cartoon. The story, in which a drunken Walrus befriends a puppy, registers as mostly desperate*.  Bowsky's other entry, 'Sneak, Snoop and Snitch' fares a little better by showing Bowsky's ability to lay out scenes evocatively: a skill he was well regarded for within the studio. The story, which revolves around a robbery of King Little, is nothing special though the animation is somewhat better than 'Mommy Loves Puppy' and, as I mentioned, better layed out.


So, are  The Animated Antics under rated gems for which animation aficionados should debate for decades to come? Nah. Top tiers of Fleischer still belong to Betty, Popeye, Screen Songs and Color Classics as far as I'm concerned. Why anyone would think of Twinkletoes as a break-out character deserving of his own cartoons is as much a mystery to me as it is to you. In truth, these cartoons probably rank somewhere below the Pudgy but above the Gabby cartoons if you can imagine such a thing.  However, I still think the plusses outweigh the minuses.  And for a studio with a batting average like Fleischers I think they can afford a few clinkers.  That certainly isn't the worst thing ever.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Popeye Don't Get No Respeck


Promotional ad for the Popeye comic strip (1929-1938) drawn by his creator E.C. Segar. (Image: Mouse Heaven)

Ahoy. Though I've effectively left this blog to moulder (with the exception of the odd DVD review) I thought I might as well commit to it some random thoughts on the subject of a Popeye animated feature. I didn't even know one was in the works until the fall of 2014 when Genndy Tartakovsky (of 'Samurai Jack' and 'Hotel Transylvania' fame) posted a test reel of how his version of (a CG) Popeye would look. There was a lot wrong with it * (and the self serving 'biography' at the start bode of potentially worse to come) but I figured it was a done deal and  I braced myself for the inevitable 'Ice Age' starring Popeye to railroad into production. For some reason though it was pulled back into development where, I read, it still lives.



Part of the problem with adapting Popeye is where to go. Since the death in 1938 of Popeye's creator E.C. Segar the character has had many authors and has evolved multiple times over the decades. During the 1950's, for instance, the animated Popeye was reimagined as a suburban dweller wandering  landlocked pre-fab homes in a sailor suit. In the comic books of the 50's Bud Sagendorf brought in elements of juvenile fantasy such as aliens and space ships (as did the animated cartoons) and generally moved Popeye in a more 'kid-friendly' direction. Both are worthy of praise, and discovery, for their  exceptional artwork but, character wise, Popeye had become somewhat neutered from what he once was. By the 80's Olive had got herself a track suit, a la Olivia Newton John, and had a son with Popeye in the execrable , in every sense, 'Popeye and Son'. What seems to have been lost in the second half of the 20th century was the creative voice of the Popeye. The fact was only one person could ever truly claim to know what Popeye was thinking: Segar.

Bud Sagendorf drew a really appealing Popeye in his early comic book work but the edge had come off the stories from Segar's day.

A Popeye "Soakie" (bubble bath container) from the 1960's.  

then this happened.

Deviation from the original comic strip started early and was born of necessity. When Fleischer Studios convinced King Features that the character could work visually in animation (by producing the test film 'Popeye The Sailor' in 1933)  they quickly realized it would be necessary to simplify. Seven minute shorts could not support the kind of character development and epic story arcs that imbued the comic strip and the assembly line nature of animated cartoons meant settling on a steady cast of characters of knowable quantity. Looking at the image at the top of this post gives you an idea how routinely Segar introduced new characters. Thus Bluto became the recurring heavy only because  Segar's 'The Eighth Sea' story (in which Bluto was only an episodic villain) happened to be in progress at the time the animated series was launched. The other main difference was spinach as the source of Popeye's strength which was only intermittently noted in the strip. But despite these simplifications the Fleischer cartoons retained the gritty, even freakish, look (and feel) of the Segar original. More importantly they retained, and even built on, the presence of an essential unseen character: the depression itself.

Popeye's domicile in Fleischer's 'For Better or Worser' (1935)


panels from the "A Sock For Susan's Sake' continuity (1937)

Popeye is nothing if not the story of economically lower middle class and poor characters. For me, this is something that got loused up with later iterations.   In Segar's comic strip the characters are always losing any money they gain through their adventures only to return at the end to their original economically deprived state. This often would motivate the start of a new story. The Fleischers likewise depicted Popeye's world as impoverished: not necessarily as a motivation to plot but, in my opinion, almost an existential comment on the world as it existed in the 30's.  I think it's safe to say that the initial appeal over other less class conscious comic strip characters of the day was it's ability to speak to the circumstances of the broadest segment of the audience: working people and the poor.  The secret was the genius skill with which both comic strip and animated cartoon were able to turn such grim material into humour without coming off as simply cruel or somehow supercilious.  People existing in those circumstances would surely have recognized, and found relief,  not only from the irony of the humour but from the scrappy character of a fighter who lived by his (not always so sharp) wits.

Castor, Olive and Ham Gravy lose their winnings from Dice Island (in the story that introduced Popeye) to a couple of crooked stock brokers (Mr. Glibb and Mr. Blabber). 

Popeye wanders a depressed neighborhood (so poor the hydrants are held together by rope!) in 'I Eats My Spinach' (1933)

As animated cartoons go Fleischer's Popeye series proved to be tremendously popular and, thanks to television re-runs, continued to win over successive generations not only due to their humour but also their excellent production quality which made competing low budget made-for-TV fare seem pale by comparison. Kids could tell the difference in quality then...and many still do when they see the Fleischer Popeyes today. In fact, for the majority of the world Fleischer Popeye is Popeye - spinach can and all.

Something new has been added: Popeye's famous Spinach Can was a unique addition of the Fleischer  cartoons (as seen in 'I Wanna Be a Lifeguard', 1936)

So then, after so many decades of Popeye where should the character go from here?  That was the problem when Jules Feiffer, a former assistant to Will Eisner and long time cartoonist  of The Village Voice, was assigned the task of writing an original screenplay to a live action version of Popeye in the late 70's (the film was released in 1980) for director Robert Altman.  Feiffer, who long preferred Segar's vision of the character found himself at odds with  director Altman (and producer Robert Evans) who insisted on elements familiar to audiences through the Fleischer cartoons. This resulted in characters such as Pappy, Bluto and Spinach being introduced in oddly prosaic fashion. Popeye's epic search for Pappy had taken months in Segar's strip making the reveal of "the Commodore's" identity in the film underwhelming by comparison. Castor Oyl, a major character in the strip, was also severely neutered and was played in a manner similar to the Kent Dorfman character played by Stephen Furst in 1978's 'Animal House' (Castor was played by similar type Donovan Scott). Still, Feiffer was able to get the period of the film correct and suitably depressed surroundings, lack of food, money and amenities (an important satirical element of the Segar original) were all depicted and pop tunesmith Harry Nillson was able to add some good songs. Audience response was, however, mixed. Leonard Maltin suggested in his review that movie goers: "Tune in a few hours' worth of Max Fleischer cartoons; you'll be much better off".  He had a point since technology did not yet exist to properly depict the wild comic violence of both strip and animated cartoon, an essential element of Popeye, within live action parameters. Those scenes in the live action Popeye were clumsy indeed.

Neither fish nor fowl the 1980 live action Popeye had some good and not-so-good elements. It's since found it's audience on home video, DVD etc.

The problem with the live action film underlines an intrinsic problem with adapting Popeye to the big screen: how to keep the characters vital while meeting the needs of many audiences: fans of the comic strip, fans of the animated cartoons  and audiences new to Popeye.  Nowadays this is usually done by numerous script doctors tasked with putting a percentage of the film towards 'fan service' and a percentage towards 'general entertainment' (generic elements of contemporary block busters) for a result which usually comes off as highly clinical.  That is the Popeye we are most likely to see.  If not  from Tartakovsky then somebody else.

Model from 'Puppet Love' (Image: Popeye Animator's Blogspot)

But is it even worth it? As far as I'm concerned the best animated Popeye has been done already: by the Fleischers.  Thankfully those were issued on DVD so we can at least have easy access to them: a door which was closed and locked for decades. But what is there to add that hasn't already been tried in the 87 years since Popeye's birth?  There have already been too many Popeyes.  Personally I can only see one path that's even worth exploring: a faithful cinematic adaptation of a Segar continuity.

Popeye's iconic first words ever were a wisecrack.

That is one hell of a tall order by the way. The fact is that no Segar continuity contains every element that audiences would recognize from the animated cartoons. Wimpy is not in 'The Eighth Sea'. Bluto is not in 'Plunder Island' (though Wimpy, Alice the Goon and The Sea Hag are).  Both are missing from Popeye's first story.  Popeye does not consume a can of spinach in any of them. Yet what is working beautifully is the storytelling. Here is an area ripe for cinematic treatment. Popeye's comic strip adventures were epic in scope and often lasted many months. They're real 'page turners' too as Segar introduced supernatural elements, strange mysteries, treasure hunts and all manner of adventure. There's enough material here already for a half dozen feature films. It would take, however, a screenwriter of considerable talent to convert comic strip to screenplay without steamrolling over Segar's carefully crafted narratives and, importantly, satiric dialog.  If Fleischer elements (Bluto, Spinach Can etc.) must be added they would need to be done so with great care.

Segar's 'Plunder Island' was the first story to feature Alice The Goon (image: Heritage Auctions).  

Mind you it's possible a story like 'Plunder Island' might work just fine without Bluto or the spinach can so long as stylistically the animation, design and everything else were to hew to the look and feel of the Fleischer cartoons: the look most audiences associate with Popeye.  In this instance CG could be used as a tool  but the film would need to have a dimensionally hand drawn and painted look.  This is one hell of an order too since no-one has successfully been able to fully replicate the Fleischer style, en masse, in the modern age. Part of this is due to the fact that much of what the Fleischers did has been 'trained out' of commercial animators today. Yet, applying the balletic approach of a Disney ** (or the 'zippy' style of a Powerpuff Girl) looks totally wrong on the brutish and weird world of Popeye. However there are people out there who have both the professional experience and lifetime love of Fleischer to handle such an order providing the budget existed.  And skilled drafts-people can always adapt assuming they have the right direction, time and tools for the job. Besides, audiences might be primed for something that looks different from the pack. Just a theory.

A rare appearance of Geezil in a Fleischer cartoon ('A Clean Shaven Man', 1936)


There have been many animated Popeyes over the years but never a faithful one. For me this is the only path worth taking for a new movie Popeye. It's the only offering yet to be made that actually adds to the legacy of the character. Otherwise better to create original characters to go with new situations rather than awkwardly shoe-horning something old into something new. Naturally I understand that is not what is going to happen if Popeye ever gets back out of development hell.  Personally I'm OK if that's where the project stays. To quote Leonard Maltin: "Tune in a few hours' worth of Max Fleischer cartoons; you'll be much better off".

(toot toot)


*-Wrong for Popeye not wrong in general. Powerpuff Girls or Samurai Jack, for example, would look wrong were they done a la Fleischer. Apples and oranges. 

**-Shamus Culhane points this out in his autobiography in reference to 'Popeye Meets William Tell'-a cartoon he directed after returning from Disney. Don't misunderstand my use of the word 'balletic'. Disney's best work were ballets IMO, and nobody did it better, but this approach isn't right for everything.