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Review of Popeye the Sailor, Vol. 1 (1933-1938) DVD set

Originally published on Aug. 10, 2007 in The Beaches Leader

Grown-up kids at heart, do yourself a favor. Take the money you'd have blown to go see the latest dumb family comedy, tack on a few extra bucks, and buy Warner Home Video's 4-DVD set Popeye the Sailor, Vol. 1 (1933-38).

Quality animation, which was dying a slow, painful death on Saturday mornings, is finally getting the attention it deserves. Hats off, especially, to the good folks at Warners, who did lavish tributes to Bugs Bunny and Co. and have now done the same for the wizened sailor man.

Thanks to decades of spin- and rip-offs, latter-day TV fans thought they knew the drill. Reedy heroine Olive Oyl snubs gruff Popeye. Bullying Bluto manhandles Olive, who screams for help. Popeye downs some conveniently placed spinach and knocks Bluto to the four winds.

But Popeye was far from formulaic in his early days. In 1933, after being the main draw of E.C. Segar's comic strip "Thimble Theatre," Popeye was turned into a Paramount "movie star" by a pair of animating New York siblings, Max and David Fleischer.

The Fleischers never saw a gag they didn't like. Inanimate objects come to life just long enough to suit plot purposes. When a guy needs to cross a huge chasm, he just hooks a rope to the other end and pulls the offending land within walking distance. Popeye's fists send so many bad guys skyward, you wonder why he even has to bother with spinach.

Comedy fans will be astounded at the attention given to wringing every possible gag from a situation. The Simpsons Movie's ancestry can be handily traced back to the Popeye series.

The soundtracks are terrific, as the Fleischers had full access to Paramount's music library. Bing Crosby's hit "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?" provides the motif for A Dream Walking (1934), in which Olive Oyl sleepwalks far above New York City.

And young cartoon watchers, trained to settle for limited animation, will be astounded at the cartoons' rich back- and foregrounds, and the characters who never just walk across the screen -- they scuttle crazily all over the frame.

If six hours of these classic cartoons isn't enough, the DVDs have another hour of minutely detailed making-of profiles, with comments from historian Jerry Beck, Lion King artist Eric Goldberg, and other cartoon notables.

A couple of caveats: Save for two Technicolor "specials," all of the set's cartoons are in black-and-white (which might be off-putting to some modern viewers). And worse, there are many eye-popping examples of "political incorrectness" (of which the set warns viewers at the start of each DVD).

But if you're looking for a rich, frothy slice of animation history, enjoy Popeye the Sailor, Vol. 1. And be sure to tell your toddler that spinach really can build up your forearms that way.

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