Noel watched check discs of the new Popeye cartoons DVD set last weekend, and while the cartoons aren't by and large my cup of tea, the DVD package Warner Brothers has put together is enough to make a fan -- or at least an intrigued student -- out of any viewer. These are the Fleischer Popeyes, the first 60 cartoons made, and they differ radically from the muscle-bound sailor's later incarnations for Hanna-Barbara and A.A.P.
In some ways, they're less sophisticated. One of the many scholars, fans, and collectors who provide commentary tracks on selected episodes mentions the rather Neanderthal personality Popeye exhibited in the first few years. He solves all problems with his fist, and the one thing guaranteed to make him blow his top is a challenge to his masculinity.
He also exhibits some weird recurring gags; one of the oddest and most intermittently disturbing is his tendency to blast a large object into smaller versions of the same object with a punch. At one point he whomps an Indian chief and turns him into Gandhi!
But even if the cartoons haven't aged well -- or maybe it's that the times have past them by -- the thoroughness with which Warner Home Video has packaged them with context-setting material makes them one of the must-have animation items for any enthusiast. The documentaries take the history of Popeye all the way through its modern incarnations, and don't pull any punches about the mistakes made as the property bounced from studio to studio. And unlike many DVD with extensive featurettes, the commentary tracks do not simply repeat the information provided elsewhere on the disc. There's an interesting variety of voices featured on the commentaries, from bemused British academic to "Oh, man, did you see that?!" cackling fanboys. Jerry Beck, animation historian and advocate extraordinaire, provides a track.
There's so much to be learned from these cartoon styles from another era, and even though they might not provide instantly-pleasurable entertainment for those with modern tastes, it's fascinating to step into the shoes of a 1930s audience and erase three-quarters of a century of animation, film, and humor development. And making that journey in the company of such knowledgeable and congenial companions as the contributors to this magnificent set -- that's a pleasure in itself.