I have no idea whether the Popeye’s Island Adventures series has wrapped up for good. Or whether they’re just taking a break after publishing a 25th short cartoon. There was, like, a monthlong pause after the first time they put up a two-minute short, after all.
So for want of a better idea I’ll dig into their archive of 60s King Features Syndicate cartoons. These have gathered four cartoons per video. I don’t feel up to reviewing all four in one essay. Not while I’m stalling like this. The first of their YouTube videos bundled Hits and Missiles and Plumber’s Pipe Dream, both of which I’ve already discussed. So let me go to the third, Jeep Tale, which starts at 11:29 in the video. Oh, I like Eugene the Jeep. This is sure to be good.
Jeep Tale was directed by Jack Kinney, the same as Plumber’s Pipe Dream. And right away the title card makes me think of a thing I didn’t acknowledge enough in Plumber’s Pipe Dream: the title card is beautiful. It’s this nice abstract midcentury-styled thing. So is the long, low cabinet that Eugene hops past in the first scene. They’re attractive to look at, at least to someone of my aesthetics. The Jeeps’ treehouse is cute, and to make it a bit funnier, it has a TV antenna. The animation is limited to the point of disappearing altogether, yes. But the pictures are nice to look at. Sometimes absurdly nice: the rendering of Eugene the Jeep and his family makes them amazingly adorable, moreso than I remember them ever being in the comic strip or the Fleischer cartoons.
The cartoon’s frame is Swee’Pea asking Popeye to explain stuff. This was used several times in the King Features cartoons of the 60s. Usually it was Swee’Pea wanting a story. I understand its value as a framing device. For one, it lets the cartoonists use any story premise they have, regardless of whether it’s got anything to do with Popeye. For another, it means like half a minute or more of the five-minute cartoon can be stock animation. And this sets up a story which evokes The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It doesn’t get too close to the original story, but it does want the audience to think of Peter Rabbit.
If there’s one thing Famous Studios Popeye cartoons teach us, it’s that there’s no good Popeye cartoons where he’s facing down an animal. Popeye loses them all, and comes off looking a jerk for trying. (I will defend The Hungry Goat as a great cartoon. I love it. But it’s so much a Tex Avery cartoon that happens to have slotted Popeye in that the cartoon even calls itself out for not being Popeye enough. It reads much more as a stealth pilot for the goat character.) So seeing Popeye and a family of Jeeps living in his(?) yard seemed like a warning sign. No, though; the backstory Popeye isn’t facing down an animal. Bluto is. That’s a conflict I don’t remember from Famous Studios cartoons. And it’s a good one. We can root for the animal to come out on top without feeling like we’re double-crossing Popeye.
The story Popeye tells has got something of a storyline. Young Eugene refuses his Jeep lessons, while his sisters are well-behaved. I don’t know whether his sisters ever get a “canonical” appearance where they’re not part of a possibly fictional tale. Their names are Flipsy, Mipsy, and Tossytail, names sure to come up at 60s-Popeye-Trivia Night. The story more or less follows. Young Eugene goes off to make mischief at the Bad Farmer’s, and quickly gets in over his head. His mother saves him, distracting Bad Farmer Bluto. She hypnotizes Bad Farmer Bluto who goes bouncing off and accidentally threatening Young Eugene’s life … so Young Eugene teleports for the first time. There’s a bit of slack in the storyline but it basically hangs together. I get why this stuff happens and in this order, more or less.
Making the conflict Jeeps Versus Bluto is a pretty good choice. It’s a fresh angle and it avoids making Popeye the antagonist. Making it a Young Eugene who’s not really magical yet, too, keeps the conflict from being a blowout. The plot structure leaves Popeye nearly out of the cartoon. But Popeye as the narrator means he doesn’t seem to be out of action. Good Farmer Popeye stopping in to kibbutz helps give Popeye presence even if he doesn’t affect things any. I laughed at how the “tool shed” Eugene runs to is an ammunition dump. It’s preposterous in a way that’s maybe a little out of tone for the rest of the quite gentle story, but it works for me. The hypnotized Bluto muttering “jeep … jeep ow … jeep ow ow ow” as he bounces on his rear end through thistles is also making me laugh. I will insist this is because Jackson Beck is performing such a nothing line well, not because I’ll laugh at the dumbest stuff.
There’s some oddities in the animation. This besides the problem of working out whether the Jeeps’ treehouse is on Good Farmer Popeye or Bad Farmer Bluto’s property. There are, for example, a lot of scens which fade out instead of just cutting to something else going on in the scene. There are, in the first half of the cartoon, a lot of quite short shots. And, like, why the fade-out (at about 14:30 in the video) after Popeye tells of Eugene being locked in the cage just to Swee’Pea’s reaction of “Ooh, he was mean”? It seems like they were trying to save screen time. And then had 25 seconds for Eugene to fill time, doing a little magic and then dancing the Sailor’s Hornpipe. It’s cute — every moment of Eugene or his relative Jeeps is adorable — but why so much of it? And if Eugene is going to sing the Sailor’s Hornpipe would it have been too much trouble to have the soundtrack match?
Also so Eugene’s Mom can hypnotize people, but as far as I remember Eugene can’t? … Although I guess that fits with the story Popeye tells. Carry on, then.