And now Seymour Kneitel-mania gets us to 1960 and the most seasonally appropriate King Features Popeye of all. How could this have ever lined up so it would publish, in my time zone, Christmas Eve? Other than by my shuffling my schedule around to fill it with reviews this past week? Hey, it happened, that’s enough. Now with story, direction, and production credited to Seymour Kneitel, let’s enjoy some Spinach Greetings.
The Sea Hag has captured Santa Claus and only Popeye can rescue Christmas.
This is a freaking great premise. That may be the best half-hour Christmas special you could make featuring Popeye. This turns out instead to be your regular five-and-a-half-minute cartoon, but never mind. The idea is first-rate.
So I’m sorry that I don’t like the cartoon more. So much about it is appealing. Settling in with Popeye reading ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. The stockings set up at the fireplace, with the mouse hanging up a tiny stocking ultimately filled with cheese. Wimpy’s stocking having a hole that leads to a garbage bin. Sea Hag’s clear statement of motivation: “Everyone is happy this time of year and it’s all Santa Claus’s fault!” Santa flying a reindeer-headed jet plane, too. The change in vehicle must be easier to animate than eight tiny reindeer. It also fits with Space Age attempts at updating Santa to jets and rockets and other modern vehicles. That didn’t stick, but it makes sense to try.
Popeye learns the Sea Hag captured Santa. He sneaks into her castle. She sends her Vulture to capture and dispose of Popeye. He’s eaten his spinach, so he can kill the Vulture instead. She drops Popeye down her trap door; he punches the alligators in the pit into luggage. She throws a tantrum while Popeye frees Santa. It’s a happy ending. It’s all competently animated, and it all fits together well. But the cartoon somehow fails to have a good escalating tension or action or anything. I’ve mentioned how Paramount Cartoon Studios shorts have only the one gear. That serves a mood piece like Myskery Melody fine, and it works great for Sisyphean cartoons like Popeye Goes Sale-Ing. Here, it keeps the exciting part from being exciting.
Here’s an example of something unsatisfying here. Santa says nothing after he’s kidnapped. He sheds a tear, a moment that works great. But the whole short goes by with Santa doing and saying nothing, at least until his final farewell. I don’t have a good hypothesis why not. If he said nothing though the whole short his wordlessness would seem like a thoughtful choice. It would put Santa outside the normal world even despite being someone who could be tied to a chair. But as it is, it feels like they couldn’t even have Santa be interested enough to tell the Sea Hag she was being naughty. Why not have Santa and the Sea Hag squabble? How could that not be great?
Popeye kills animals this short. It’s something he’s done before, and even jokes he’s done before. Coming back with the cooked carcass of the Sea Hag’s Vulture evokes returning the Sindbad the Sailor’s Roc. Knocking alligators into luggage he’s done several times over. I don’t like that side of Popeye, even when he is doing it to stay alive. And it plays meaner here than it did in the theatrical shorts. Some of that’s because the made-for-TV shorts are less rowdy and rough than the theatrical shorts. Some of that’s because it is a Christmas cartoon. I mean, Santa is looking at you, Popeye.
The Sea Hag ends her part in the short crying how “My Christmas is ruined! Everybody’s gonna be happy!” That moment surprised me. It’s a funny and appropriate way to go out, but I’d expected some softening at the end. That Santa would give her a present. It could be a piece of coal, that she could take as confirmation of her special wickedness. I bet if this were a half-hour special they’d have included that. But I like that it isn’t softened. It surprises while staying the logical result of the characters’ choices.
(Seasin’s Greetinks is a 1933 theatrical short, from before they got Jack Mercer, Mae Questel, and Jackson Beck to do the voices. It’s got no Santa Claus in it, but Popeye does decorate a tree by punching.)