Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938 Volume One DVD set review

Throw-out those public domain sets and DVDs, they're now obsolete! For those who never had the chance to see the original Fleischer cartoons during their 1970s syndication, these will be a real eye-popping experience. Forget Disney, and you can even forget some of Warner's Looney Tunes animated shorts. As great as they are, this the pinnacle of American animation, its golden age. Quality and pride were the Fleischer's method. Needless-to-say, it--and Superman--bankrupted Max and David Fleischer, and the evolution of animation in this country would never reach such heights again, except for a few rare examples. Animation director John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy) makes a fine point in one of his commentaries: if only we could have this side of America back, that dogged commitment to quality and innovation. Keep the racism and the labor violence, the lynch mobs, and the rest, just bring-back what was good. Bring-back the pride in one's work.

This set is an animation connoisseur's dream, an apotheosis: 60 of the original Fleischer Popeye cartoons in sequential-order, and lovingly restored from what have to be materials that are very close to the original 35mm nitrate film-negatives. If you want a yardstick for how good they look, you could compare the restorations to that of the F.W. Murnau foundation's work on Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), or even Warner's stellar restoration of Citizen Kane (1941), or any number of editions of classics by the Criterion collection. All-stops were pulled in this set, and in-addition to the original 60 franchise cartoons, there are a whopping 15 additional Bray/Fleischer cartoons dating-back to 1915! There are even "Koko the Clown" and Mutt & Jeff" shorts here, it's almost completist in its scope.

People tend to forget that Popeye was introduced through a Betty Boop short, included here as the very first cartoon from 1933. Plots? What, are you kiddin'? Popeye and Bluto beat each other senseless over Olive Oyl, again-and-again-and-again! From this, you can tell these cartoons are not for children--at least not highly-impressionable ones. Let's be honest: if your kids are acting-out violence they see on television, you have a much bigger problem on-your-hands. Your kid might be nuts. Teenagers might be able to watch this, maybe, but not children ages 3-13, but that's your call, not anyone else's. It's pretty hilarious to look back and think that I used to watch these almost every day of my childhood, heh-heh. Also, one has to keep-in-mind that there are definite examples of overt racism in most of these cartoons--Warners wisely released these uncut, pointing-out in a pre-menu page that it would be wrong to deny these attitudes existed and were prevalent in the culture when they were made.

It's an idiotic conceit to want to remove these things--like the black-faced minstrel jokes, Native American gags, etc.--because it's just running-away from them. It's indirectly akin to holocaust denial, thank you. It's also known as censorship, and Warners decided not to make the same mistake they did on some the Looney Tunes boxes. A lot of fans were incensed by the editing and omission of certain cartoons in the Warners canon. But enough of our red-haired step-children here on the left, the Stalinists.

The spinach: what you get here are as many original Popeye cartoons as you can handle. You're going to be stunned at how lousy American animation is today, and how poorer nations like Canada, Russia, and even the Czech Republic, can do better than us today. Ponder the reasons. We can be proud of what the Fleischers have left us, but we should aspire to these heights again. We can do it, the talent is here, but the funding is not. These four discs have hours of features--documentaries, commentaries from historians and contemporary animators, and even archival recordings from the original animators of these shorts. Watching these today, one can see how real imagination applied to this medium looks, they are jaw-dropping. From the composition, to the motion, to the execution of the characters within their three-dimensional environments...was there ever a greater example of what could be done creatively in animation?

Also included are the technicolor (TM) 20-minute shorts, “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor” (1936), and “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves” (1937). Both feature three-dimensional little sets, and presaged Disney's full-length animated feature "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) by several months. It was the Fleischer studios that did the story first, as a short. As far as this writer can tell, the only other animated feature approaching full-length before the Fleischer two-reelers was Lotte Reiniger's "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" (1926), but it wasn't done with conventional cell-animation. Reiniger utilized hand-cut silhouette figures and backgrounds. Now, if Warners can get us Betty Boop and all the rest of the Fleischer canon in this kind of a presentation, and soon.