Popeye and the Giant: body horror, weirdness, but no, not *that* Giant


I complained that last week’s 60s Popeye was a competent cartoon. Every piece of it made sense, followed from the premise, and came out pretty bland. These are not faults for this week. It’s another Jack Kinney joint, this one with story by Noel Tucker and animation direction by Hugh Fraser. Noel Tucker is a name unrecorded by me, so far. Hugh Fraser we’ve seen having Popeye build a robot and being a Hawai’i tour guide. Both of those times I noted the animation was loose, or if you’re not feeling generous, sloppy. What does this imply for Popeye and the Giant? Let’s watch.

The title gives me expectations: that it’ll be another Jack-and-the-Beanstalk take starring Popeye. They’ve done this before, during World War II and again later in the Famous Studios run. They also did it in the 60s run of cartoons. They’d do it again for the 70s run. But sometimes it’s possible that a Popeye cartoon might reuse a premise of another Popeye cartoon. I know, shocking. But, no; the cartoon decides to go in weird directions instead.

And it keeps going weird. Weird to the point I am more curious than usual about its writing. It feels to me like Tucker had a couple ideas, found they were developing in curious ways, couldn’t fit them together, and went with what he had. The cartoon shifts direction several times over. The narrative doesn’t quite make sense. But it’s a good weird. It’s an unpredictable weird, at least.

Follow the narrative. We start with Popeye carrying flowers, I assume to Olive Oyl. He’s not aware that he’s in footage recycled from another short. Wimpy appears, in a pocket universe, offering his usual pay-you-Tuesday-for-a-hamburger-today deal. Popeye ignores him and walks out of the cartoon. Jump to Brutus, who learns the carnival wants a giant. He guesses his plant-growth pills will work on Wimpy, so feeds him a pile of burgers so large Wimpy’s eyes poke out, the first of many body-horror moments. It has an effect: the camera waves around and loses focus, a rare moment of cinematography for these shorts.

Gigantic Wimpy, with a large-but-not-proportional hat and tie, lecturing Brutus, whom he holds in one hand.
I give them a pass on having Wimpy’s clothes gigantify along with him, and will allow Wimpy’s hat and tie not quite growing to fit as a way of demonstrating his bulk. But: we’re looking at Wimpy’s left hand here. How is that attached to his shoulder? So there’s one more moment of body horror for you.

And it works, as Brutus declares, before we actually see anything happen. He jumps outside his house to laugh, a move that doesn’t look at all like they’re recycling footage from another short. Wimpy’s body bulges out and expands in a way that does look painful, an expressive bit for the animation limitations here. Brutus demands Wimpy sign a contract; Wimpy demands food, first.

Here, I think, the premise got away from Tucker. Wimpy is a clever, gluttonous, and slothful character. Add to that physical power, though? That’s dangerous in a novel way. Unfortunately we fall back from that. Brutus agrees to feed Wimpy first, delivering a bunch of burgers on a conveyor belt, saying, “I can’t supply the demand”. It’s a curious line because it’s got the placement and cadence of a joke, but is a literal statement of fact. Was this a placeholder line, meant to be replaced with something funny?

The carnival can’t use Wimpy, observing that he’s impossible show or feed. Good observations. So Brutus turns to the Sea Hag, who’s set herself up as Shyster At Law. I’m sure this is a sly allusion to the Marx Brothers’ nearly-lost radio program, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel. Good approach and it’s not a bad role for the Sea Hag either. The Sea Hag forgets her weird crush on Wimpy and declares this is a chance to mess with Popeye, who hasn’t been seen since the story actually started.

Her plan: abandon Wimpy as a foundling child on Popeye’s doorstep. Here again I think the premise got out of Tucker’s control. Like, Brutus needed help to have the idea “make Popeye deal with this nonsense”? When Giant Wimpy’s first seen by Popeye, he’s sobbing like a baby. Why? A spell of the Sea Hag’s? That explains having the Sea Hag involved at all. But then Popeye has no doubt that he’s dealing with a giant Wimpy.

Gigantic Wimpy laying on his back in a crib outside Popeye's house. A note is pinned to Wimpy's pants, which Popeye, leaning out the window in his bedclothes, is reading.
I once again protest King Features animating my DeviantArt account without my permission.

Told, by note, that the antidote is unknown, Popeye tries to find an antidote. He goes right to spinach — er, essence of spinach — showing that he’s aware of the rules of the universe he’s in. This makes Giant Wimpy bigger, animated by having the camera slide down a little. So instead he tries “essence of hamburger”, which looks to the untrained eye like a hamburger. Sure, we already saw him eat dozens of burgers that Brutus made, and again dozens more at the carnival. But this time? It’s a burger that shrinks him back to normal.

Wimpy thanks Popeye, while Popeye can’t help mouthing along to Wimpy’s lines. And Wimpy’s hungry again, and that’s our laugh line to the finish.

So, yeah, it’s all low-key bonkers. I mean this affectionately. Someone seeing only Brutus reading about this carnival offer would not guess it would have Popeye deal with a giant “baby” Wimpy. After watching the cartoon a couple times I guess I follow the threads, more or less, but it’s a weird path getting there. There’s two good premises — Wimpy as a demanding giant, and Popeye dealing with a giant baby — brought up and immediately forgotten. The story needed another draft or two to be a coherent whole, but I’m not sure that would be better. As it is, it’s all weird jagged edges.

Most interesting about the animation is that Giant Wimpy is not Wimpy drawn larger. His proportions are all off. This is a good way of establishing that Wimpy is truly gigantic. It does mean they can’t use stock footage of Wimpy for all this time that he’s the center of attention. Having to do that is probably why they had to reuse footage from other shorts. It’s a worthwhile trade.

This is a cartoon I’m going to have specific memories of next week.

Author: Joseph Nebus

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

4 thoughts on “Popeye and the Giant: body horror, weirdness, but no, not *that* Giant”

  1. The cartoons are so horrendously cheap, but I love the title cards and especially the theme tune of this series. It starts out like a slightly less frenzied version of the 1940s tune, but then switches gears halfway through to let you know they’ve given it an honest rewrite. The instrumentation is a little more sparse but it makes up for it by slathering on the xylophone. It sounds great.

    It would have been interesting to see Popeye with the UPA style but a dose of actual budget.

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    1. The title music does sound great, yeah, and as you say it’s a thought-out rewrite of the 1940s tune. I had assumed it was recorded by the Famous Studios musicians, but that’s only my assumption. I had also assumed the animation was Famous Studios, mostly because it seemed like something that King Features would farm out to the most experienced team.

      The title sequence of this era give me this powerful comforting feeling. I know that much of this is nostalgia. That all these very many cartoons opened with exactly the same bold blue screen and title music was very comforting to an orderly young nerd. These days I also better appreciate how the subcontracted studios other than Famous Studios would try to make a weird expressive abstract art piece for the actual title. That Famous Studios would just do the cartoon’s title in a uniform stencil was also soothing in its way.

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  2. I asked Al Brodax why he gave the majority of the Popeyes to Jack Kinney. He said because Kinney worked for Disney . Many ex-Disney people worked on these Popeyes. Alas, you wouldn’t know it watching episodes like “Popeye and the Giant”. However it is important to note not all of Kinney’s Popeyes’ feature weird animation. Many are very well done. It depends upon who worked on them.

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    1. Thanks for the insight! I did have the impression that the Kinney cartoons had the animators with best credentials behind them, even if the particular cartoon is a disaster. And, as you say, many of them are just fine. I suspect if I really graded them, I’d find most of the 60s Popeye cartoons no worse than competent. It’s the messes that form a real impression, though.

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