Popeye’s Island Adventures seems to be on hiatus, if it hasn’t shut down altogether. I figure I’ll close out the quartet of cartoons in the “Classic Popeye” video I’ve been going over. And then maybe do another Popeye cartoon bit for the couple weeks after that, since it would really help my life right now to have some writing ready a couple weeks ahead of time.
So. “Classic Popeye Episode 1”, the fourth cartoon. It’s another King Features Syndicate cartoon, From Way Out.
As a kid I knew what it meant if a cartoon was directed by Gene Deitch. It was one of those weird Tom and Jerrys. You know the ones I mean. Where the characters were on a different model, and the storyline moved in fits and starts, and the audio was recorded in the Perth Amboy YMCA men’s locker room. I know a lot of animation fans hate them. I didn’t, or at least I didn’t for long. I appreciated strange, off-beat takes on familiar things. I still do.
So when I saw this was among the Gene Deitch-directed Popeye cartoons I was happy. The cartoon might not be good in the way, like, Cartoons Ain’t Human is good. But it would be weird. It would have personality.
Popeye has encountered aliens before. I think this is the first time Popeye’s precipitated an alien invasion, though. A small invasion, granted. The animation’s too limited for it to be a full-scale invasion. And it isn’t exactly his fault. But, still. Taking the Martian Mauler for a kid and trying to play patty-cake with him? That’s pretty dumb stuff on Popeye’s part.
If I have one stereotype of the King Features Syndicate Popeye cartoons it’s that every shot is three characters standing in a row on a flat background, with cutaways to one character having an emotion. This cartoon … has an amount of that, yes. But it hides it well. The characters move a lot, and they move in funny ways. They move even when there isn’t a particular joke to what they’re doing. There are little animated jokes, such as the Martian Mauler’s pants slowly dropping as Popeye and the group examine his stolen belt buckle. But there’s nice silly bits that don’t need to be there, like the way Popeye’s hat swirls around in the air after he’s fallen through the hole.
And characters move in big, expressive ways. Look at the scene of Popeye spanking the Martian Mauler at about 20:30. I would not be surprised if there’s only two or four frames, repeated, in this scene. But they’re good frames, each funny pictures. Look at Olive Oyl dodging the Martian Mauler’s reinforcements at about 21:20, including a neatly-posed scene about 21:24 where she’s looking away from the camera and still moving. Heck, look at the Martian Mauler’s joy in terrorizing the terribly square Popeye and Olive Oyl, at 19:47. Seriously, freeze the playback there. Even in that still picture there’s life.
You might reasonably complain that the characters float off-model. I mostly wouldn’t. Yes, Popeye looks just weird at, like, 18:30 where he’s collecting stuff that fell from the Space Magnet. Olive Oyl doesn’t look much better shortly after that. Or look at Popeye’s poses at about 20:26, right before he spanks the Martian. I don’t mind the characters drifting off their canonical model, though. They look off-model in that way you get when someone draws the character in a quick, energetic rush, and that’s usually a good look. I do not like both Popeye’s eyes being opened, though. I get the comic value in, like, once in a decade something being so shocking that both Popeye’s eyes open. Having that for a low-stakes thing like spanking an alien biker is just … nah, not for me.
I do like, though, the animation of Popeye rolling the Martians up into a giant ball, and particularly his spinning throw from about 22:16. It’s not smooth and graceful like you’d see if this were a Fleischer cartoon. But it’s a much better line of reasonably complicated action than you see in most of these 60s cartoons.
The cartoon ends at about 22:28, with the characters all lined up listening to the Martians crash off-camera into something. And then we get a wonderfully odd, awkward ten seconds of the characters looking at each other. I don’t know if the cartoon ran short or if they had thought there’d be time for another gag or what. It plays like Popeye needs time to think of a decent closing couplet to sing. I am irrationally pleased with this strange quiet, though.
For some reason the Professor who invented the magnetic telescope was not Professor O G Wotasnozzle. It’s not even the same voice characterization being used. (I don’t know if it’s the same actor; Wotasnozzle was yet another voice by Jack Mercer.) I don’t know why not. Wotasnozzle got a fair bit of screen time in the King Features Syndicate cartoons. But this is one of the earlier batch of the cartoons. Possibly they weren’t sure whether they could use Wotasnozzle. Wotasnozzle never appeared in the Fleischer or Famous studio cartoons. But he was introduced by Segar in the Sappo comic strip, which you’ll note is not Popeye. Wotasnozzle did join the Popeye comic strip, but I don’t know when.
The magnetic-telescope thing seemed oddly familiar and I was able to place it. I don’t know that this is the source, but one of the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s was The Magnetic Telescope. It looked … well, like a much classier, Art Deco version of the giant-horseshoe-on-a-stand that you get here. The 1940s mad scientist didn’t attract any biker Martians, of course, because juvenile delinquents weren’t invented until much farther into World War II.
I grant I may be a soft touch for Gene Deitch’s style. But I think this cartoon is better than the script for it would imply, and that’s thanks to strong animation.