This week I’ve got another Popeye cartoon directed by Gene Deitch. So there’s no information about story credits or specific animators or anything. Just his bunch in Czechoslovakia. Sorry. Here’s Potent Lotion, a title that seems like it should be a rhyme yet isn’t.
This is a weird cartoon. I know, a Gene Deitch cartoon turning out weird? Who imagined that? The core of the weirdness is that this is quite a well-made cartoon. The characters are all pretty angular, but that’s not a bad thing. The cartoon looks fresher than the usual. I think it’s the movement. The characters move like paper doll silhouette puppets, with discrete joints. Or like a Flash animation from about 2006.
Certainly the animation, while limited, does more than it needs. Everyone moves with their whole bodies. Brutus’s face clearly moves under his mask, when anyone would accept just not seeing anything there. When several characters are in a walk (or run) cycle, like the henchmen or the two cops, they’re out of phase, so it looks like there’s more movement than there really is. Or when Brutus is splitting up the loot. His hand reaches into the bag, and pushes the bag down. It’s an extra bit of life.
And it’s got a strong plot. Popeye gets a bottle of shaving lotion, and a telegram from Olive Oyl to meet her. Everyone he passes on the way punches him. It’s a mystery until we see Brutus and his henchmen robbing a bank. The cops are more interested in punching Popeye than chasing the robbers. Popeye works out it’s the aftershave that’s made him so punchable. He finds the gang’s hideout and in the end drops enough Punch Lotion on Brutus’s head to break up the gang. There’s more to the story but that’s the important stuff.
It’s well-organized, too. Even in the little things. Like, Popeye signs for the delivery package; he doesn’t sign for the telegram. First time through I noted that as a discrepancy. But then he comes back around, when he finds the gang’s hideout, and says he forgot to sign for the telegram. The henchman uses the chance to say he’ll get a slip of paper, and gets Brutus instead. Everybody’s being smart.
So I can’t pin down just what about the cartoon feels off to me. I want to say it’s Brutus’s setup of robbing a bank, with a plan only incidentally involving Popeye. But that can’t be right. We’ve had any number of cartoons where Brutus is an actual villain. Even ones where he’s a bank-robber or other desperado. Those are usually set in Old Western towns, though, or in Yukon Gold Strike towns or things like that. And they usually have the setup where Bluto/Brutus hasn’t met Popeye when the action starts. Maybe that’s the weird thing. He’s not usually in Anytown USA and aware of Popeye and still scheming against society rather than against Popeye. Or maybe it’s that usually, once the cartoon starts, Brutus/Bluto focuses on besting Popeye. It’s rare that he treats Popeye as a feature of the landscape.
It’s also a bit weird that after eating his spinach — sorry, Brutus’s spinach. Still, it’s common enough for Popeye to eat environmentally-provided spinach — Popeye just uses the chance to break his bonds. He pours Punch Lotion on Brutus to get the gang to slug him. This is a good plan, yes. It’s just surprising to see Popeye resort to his smarts first and his fists second.
My reservations are weird, idiosyncratic, and not that important. This is a cartoon worth watching, and it’s one that shows even in the dire circumstances of 60s television animation, with characters who had already been wrung through three decades and hundreds of cartoons, there’s still good cartoons to make.