Popeye’s Island Adventures: wait, spinach causes transmogrifications? This changes everything!


Perhaps the near-miss between Popeye’s birthday, in these cartoons, and the 90th anniversary of his debut in the comic strip was coincidence. This week’s two-minute cartoon is Heatwave, and that’s only seasonal if you’re south of the equator. Which, in fairness, Popeye must be sometimes. But I suspect if they do a Christmas cartoon it’ll be all snowy and winter-y.

Is Bluto dumb? The Popeye cartoon settings have always been malleable about their details. Their settings and what exactly Popeye and Bluto and Olive Oyl know about each other at the start of the cartoon. Whether Bluto is dumb affects the story, though. It sets the bounds of how clever a trick he can do, and how clever Popeye has to be to foil him. I think mostly he gets lumped into the “dumb” category. He’s got size and strength going for him. He has to dump something to stay balanced, by cartoon character creation rules. But smart and strong makes him a tougher antagonist. It’s, generically, more fun seeing the hero beat a tougher opponent.

In the Popeye’s Island Adventure series everybody’s a kid. I’m not clear just how young, but that’s all right. Every age of kid is dumb in their own ways, most of them all right. It makes it less weird someone might do something dumb. But Bluto’s smartness, relative to Popeye and Olive Oyl, is still important and still shapes the plot.

The story starts with a simple premise right there in the cartoon’s title. Popeye and his spinach are wilting in the heat. He brings a sad, nearly dead plant to Olive Oyl’s, and that’s all right. She’s got plenty of water, thanks to a water purifier that Popeye somehow didn’t notice when he arrived. I like giving Olive Oyl this trait of being a tinkerer, in part since that gives her something to do that isn’t waiting to be captured or rescued. Olive’s happy to lend Popeye her water-purifier, too.

Bluto builds a swimming pool. This seems idiosyncratic, since he’s never more than like twenty feet from the shore. But I understand preferring to swim in domesticated water. He builds kind of a shabby one, but not a bad one for a kid. And then he starts pumping swamp water in to fill it. He’s startled that he gets a pool of swamp water. What did he expect?

I can kind of follow the kid logic of “if it’s in a swimming pool, it has to be clean swimming pool water”. I mean, it’s a mistake, but I get the essentialist reasoning there. This Bluto seems old to be making that mistake, though. Olive Oyl, presumably about the same age, is building a water purifier. So is he dumb? Or just oblivious?

The cartoon goes on in the obvious, reasonable way from there. Bluto swipes the water purifier and fills up his pond. And he’s got a cute alligator inflatable that reminds me of the alligator pet he dreamed of in Scramble For The Egg.

Popeye and Olive Oyl follow Bluto back to his swimming pool. They surveil the situation and Popeye eats his spinach. And transforms into a human sponge. And I’m really not sure I like that. I was okay with his turning into a mer-man last week, for example. And I’m not sure why this isn’t okay. There’s a couple influences, I think. One is that an extended underwater sequence always has a slightly dreamy logic to it, so more absurd things feel less outrageous. And being in the water and turning to a water creature has tones of … oh, let’s call it sympathetic magic. Here, Popeye just looks at a sponge, eats a can of spinach, and turns into a sponge-torsoed human-form. There’s a linking step missing there, perhaps because the cartoon’s too short to justify it.

Popeye sponges up Bluto’s swimming pool, blasts all that water into the purifier and sprays Bluto with even more swamp water, and the action’s done. The button is Popeye taking a swig of Bluto’s drink and, uh-oh, that’s swamp water too. Good enough ending, certainly.

There’s much I like about the cartoon. The storyline’s logical, apart from Popeye’s spinach-induced sponge transformation. But what everyone does and why they do it makes sense. It feels underdeveloped, though. Everybody wants a thing, and then Bluto does a mean thing, and then Popeye foils it, and that’s all. I’d like a bit more escalation, or some wrinkles where trying to do something fails and they have to try again. This might be impossible, given there’s only two minutes of cartoon time. But there were 35 seconds spent establishing the heat wave before we see Olive Oyl’s water purifier. What if the cartoon started with an establishing shot of the heat waves rolling the atmosphere, and then Popeye with his wilted spinach at Olive’s door?

This is one of the cartoons I’d like to see done as a real, full, six-to-eight minute short.


I’m doing my best to watch all the Popeye’s Island Adventures. The cartoons’ reviews should be at this link.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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