We’ve seen Poopdeck Pappy in shorts from at least three of the King Features Syndicate cartoon makers. But, you know, it was 1960. It was time for Seymour Kneitel to write, direct, and produce Me Quest For Poopdeck Pappy. Here goes.
Is there a more iconic Popeye story than his search for his Pappy? (Bluto/Brutus harasses Olive Oyl until Popeye punches him is any 30s-cartoon Bully harasses Female Lead until Little Guy fights back short.) In the comic strip, it was one of the stories that defined his character. For the Fleischer studios it became Goonland, one of the best theatrical cartoons ever made. (One semester campus cinema put a short before every movie. Usually Road Runner-and-Coyote; it was an engineering school. But one time they showed Goonland. I recommend the experience of watching it with an audience that has no idea what’s coming or how Popeye and Pappy will escape the Goons.)
For Famous Studios it got remade as Popeye’s Pappy, a cartoon you probably don’t know because Famous Studios decided to make it racist. So it didn’t get shown much on television. (Who looks at Goonland and thinks “what this cartoon lacks is a two minute prologue of Whoopi Goldberg saying times were different then”?) Then Paramount Cartoon Studios — the same outfit as Famous and Fleischer, really — put in one more take. And elements of the same core idea would go into Robert Altman’s movie. And into the 2004 direct-to-video-that-I-never-saw Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest For Pappy.
It’s easy to see why to keep going back to this story. The inciting incident of Popeye learning he might not be an orphan, is compelling. The dynamic of Popeye utterly devoted to a father he’s only ever imagined, and Pappy utterly contemptuous of his son? “I hates relatives,” Pappy declares in I think every version of this story. The setup alone generates comedy and drama. In this cartoon Pappy concedes that Popeye can take it, like his son would, when Popeye absorbs a fist straight to the jaw. “But my son woulda hit back,” which Popeye finds unthinkable. That is a master class in defining two people and their relationship. Pappy is a hilarious character, a caricature of Popeye that somehow still has some believable core. Pappy’s heel-face turn, bonding with his son over spinach and punching, is silly but makes such good character sense that it works every time. So the core story is so strong it’s hard to imagine anyone messing it up.
That isn’t a setup to saying this messed it up. The cartoon is lesser than Goonland, but, c’mon. Goonland is one of the best theatrical shorts American animation ever made.
The most relevant comparison is to Popeye’s Pappy. Me Quest For Poopdeck Pappy is almost what you get if you remove all the racist depictions of cannibal islanders from that. The role that Olive Oyl and Swee’Pea serve here, letting Popeye explain the premise of the cartoon, is served in Popeye’s Pappy by Popeye’s mother (!)(!!!)(!!!!!) in what is surprisingly not her only depiction ever. They then disappear wholly. Goonland has Popeye explain the premise in song, to himself and the audience. I’m curious why the later shorts aren’t comfortable with Popeye addressing the audience.
As with Popeye’s Pappy we see Popeye face the creatures of the island, all of them powerful and menacing, though not to Popeye. Pappy even sends Charlie the Octopus, an animal friend of his from the original comic strip story. (In Robert Altman’s movie I think the octopus was named Sam and his connection to Pappy was vague.) Pappy’s on “Goony Island” this time, a name that evokes Goonland, but there’s no Goons to be found. The Monster of the Sea is such a big, if pink Godzilla-esque, menace that Popeye can’t handle it without the spinach that’s rolled away. But that’s the impulse for Pappy’s change of heart here. And, as in Goonland, he observes he hasn’t had spinach in years. In Popeye’s Pappy, Pappy has a can of spinach with him all along. It’s kept inside a box with a ‘Break Glass In Emergency’ sign, a joke that belongs in a more watchable cartoon.
As every version of this story ends (that I’ve seen), Popeye’s reunited with his Pappy. And his disregard for Pappy’s autonomy — in this, Popeye’s Pappy, and the movie Pappy ruled his own island and seemed content there — is forgiven. Even by Pappy, who (as in Popeye’s Pappy) closes by singing how “Now I am happy / I found I’m the Pappy” of Popeye the Sailor Man.
As a cartoon? Well, this is limited by the things that always hit Paramount Cartoon Studios work. There’s too little variation in tempo to build up the drama to things. (Though the timing on the gorilla passing out after Popeye’s hit is quite good.) But it does have Paramount’s reliable competent animation. Everything’s fit together well. There are even flourishes of style. (Olive Oyl poses against the mast of Popeye’s ship in a pose like she uses in the two-reeler Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor. There’s no need for her to do that, even so far as there’s a need for her in the short at all, but why not be there with style?) If this short had some zany energy to it, then the strength of the story and of Popeye-Pappy interactions, would make this a really good one.