Popeye’s Island Adventures tries some art


This week’s is a short Popeye’s Island Adventure. I clock it at running two minutes exactly. That’s all right. It’s really funny as it is. Popeye The Painter doesn’t need to be longer just to be longer. Let’s watch.

There’s almost no plot to this short. It’s all setup and punchline. It works. Maybe because the premise is both simple and flexible. Popeye wants a painting. Setup: he tries painting something. Punchline: we see what he’s looking at. Repeat for as many good jokes as the still-unknown-to-us writers have. Add any running jokes and you have a story.

It’s all solid enough jokes, too. Fine art almost always harmonizes well with cartoons. I’m not sure why. It might be that the technical skill of a masterpiece gives a cartoon a better sounding board for its jokes. It might be that animators get really excited about playing with great art. Maybe not; the animation here was about the same as ever, with the writing setting up the comedy. In any case it usually goes well, unless the cartoon goes on about modern art.

Popeye’s first painting is a riff on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, starring Olive Oyl, Eugene, and Swee’Pea. The reality is less glamorous: Olive Oyl, Eugene, and Swee’Pea are trying desperately to escape a giant man-eating clam. It’s a funny setup, and I like seeing how the other characters are off having adventures even when we’re busy watching Popeye.

Then we get a version of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, featuring Popeye and Bluto. It’s theologically weird. But we can ask whether Popeye would have been such a great cartoon character if he didn’t have Bluto to play against. There are many cartoons without Bluto, but they are typically less interesting. The “reality” scene is a bit odd too. Bluto’s hanging from a crane in what looks like the aftermath of a scheme to make mischief. That’s fine, and again, I like the suggestion the characters have other stuff going on. Also that apparently Bluto mistook the scarecrow Popeye for the real one, pleasantly goofy. Popeye throwing away the painting makes sense; that this hits the crane’s controls and sends Bluto spinning away seems imbalanced, though. I feel like just abandoning Bluto to his plight would fit better.

On to modern art! Cartoons and comic strips are usually very cranky old men regarding modern art, the last place you can get paid for saying “my kid could’ve drawn that”. This cartoon isn’t so cranky. Popeye paints a Picasso-esque Portrait of Dora Maar. Eugene’s horrified by how distorted his head’s gotten; a good sneeze fixes things.

Then Swee’Pea in a version of Edvard Munch’s Scream. Swee’Pea has something to scream at: it’s the giant man-eating clam, off on a rampage. It’s sudden and funny and by making a running joke gives the cartoon just enough story.

Finally Popeye gets inspiration, drawing a spinached up version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. There’s some nice variations on the eating-the-spinach routine here. In past art cartoons Popeye’s eaten a can of spinach to gain artistic skill. Here he just uses it as a dab of paint, and that’s another smile for me. The music is different too, doing a more chamber music version of the New Popeye theme. He’s finally got the right painting for his wall. Meanwhile Olive Oyl, Eugene, Bluto, and Swee’Pea are fleeing the giant rampaging man-eating clam. Perfect resolution.

I watch these shorts several times over before writing them up, and usually another time while writing an essay. Sometimes shorts improve on the rewatching; sometimes I need a couple watches to get it. This is one I just got right away, and liked from the start. Good concept, well executed. And it finds space to fit in a Magritte joke that’s thematically appropriate to the cartoon and a riff on how Young Popeye doesn’t have his pipe. Good work all around.

I’m doing my best to review all these Popeye’s Island Adventures. Essays about them should be at this link.

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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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