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Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy

Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy

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If the idea of a 3D animated "Popeye" doesn't exactly float your boat, you aren't alone. I, for one, tend to be rather skeptical when I hear that another classic cartoon character is getting a computer makeover. While truly excellent animation is possible in any medium - be it hand drawn, computer generated, clay, stop motion, or whatever - characters tend to look best in the animation style they were designed for. Sure, it can be kind o fun to see how a character looks in a new style, but the novelty tends to wear off pretty quickly. Often, I'm left thinking "This would have looked much better in 2D."

With that in mind, I wasn't really expecting much from "Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy". E.C. Segar, Popeye's creator (not that you'd know it from the DVD), drew in a very cartoony style that was ably incorporated into the early "Popeye" cartoons. But it didn't really seem like a natural for the 3D treatment to me. The touting of comedian Paul Reiser's involvement in the film didn't really reassure me either. S it came as a very pleasant surprise that this new "Popeye" is actually kind of good.

One of the main things going for this film is the commitment to making the characters look right. An included "Making of" featurette shows that the animators were closely following model packets from King Features Syndicate. As a result, Popeye and crew look remarkably close to their 2D versions. The spinach-chompin' sailor man retains his enormous chin and ape-like proportions. Olive Oyl is suitably skinny. And all the characters get to keep their little black dot eyes.

The animation contains plenty of gifts for fans of the original 'toons as well. Popeye and his Pappy both continue to speak out of the sides of their mouths, the middles remaining stubbornly shut. When Popeye downs a can of his favorite food, his bulging muscles briefly sport a 2D steam ship to emphasize Popeye's newfound strength. In a subtler reference, Popeye' ship sports a pair of sliding doors just like the ones that opened and closed to the reveal the title and credits in the old cartoons. When going over the contents of their food stash, Olive lists "Salami, salami, bologna", which is a line from a classic Popeye short. Concern for younger viewers may keep Popeye's buddy Wimpy from chasing a duck with a meat grinder, as he does in "Popeye the Sailor meets Sindbad the Sailor". But he still manages to go after a pig with two slices of bread. (Popeye spots Wimpy some change to purchase a few burgers and the pig runs off unmolested.) Perhaps most impressive is how Olive flops around with her classic "rubber hose" limbs thanks to the eight "bones" the animators put in each arm and leg to keep her bendy.

The films other major strength is its voice cast. Jack Mercer's vocal performance as Popeye as much a part of the character as his physical attributes and love of spinach. Fortunately, the filmmakers tapped Billy West (known to animation fans as the voice of Ren's pal Stimpy and "Futurama" front man Phillip J. Fry, among many, many others) to voice the gruff sailor. West gives a stellar performance, getting Mercer's growly tone, mumbled asides, and particular mutilation of the English language down in a damn good approximation of his predecessor. Footage of West doing the voice even shows him talking out of the side of mouth! Gary Chalk (probably best known as Maximal commander Optimus Primal on "Beast Wars" and "Beast Machines") does a solid job s Bluto and Tabitha St. Germain's Olive Oyl is impressively close to Mae Questel's original. All in all, the voice performances go a long way to giving "Popeye's Voyage" a feeling of fun and authenticity.

The story for this particular special should be rather familiar to anyone who's read the comics, seen a certain few of the cartoons, or watched the live action movie. A strange dream prompts Popeye to go off in search of his long lost Pappy, who disappeared when Popeye was just a little tyke. He's joined by Olive, his adopted son Swee'pea, Wimpy - who stows away in pursuit of the crews' rations, and first mate Bluto. Some Popeye fans will no doubt be upset by the fact that Popeye and Bluto seem relatively chummy and never get into anything worse than a light tiff. But this alteration to the typical cartoon storyline feels less like an attempt to take the violent aspects out of Popeye - a la later versions of Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes - and more like a stab at an adventure story, more reminiscent of the original comics. There's a mention or two of the fact that the adventure takes place around Christmas, but this seems like an afterthought designed to help sales during the holiday season. The relationships between Popeye, Pappy, and Swee'pea set up a nice, if somewhat obvious, father-son theme. Popeye's affection for his "infink" manages to mostly steer clear of complete sappiness and the script is peppered with enough jokes to keep it genuinely funny. But Swee'pea does provide a lot of the story's emotional backbone, so if this plotline seems corny to you, you may not enjoy this DVD.

One of the first studios to produce fully 3D animation for television, Mainframe is still one of the best. With such series as "ReBoot", "Beast Wars", and the MTV "Spider-Man" under their belt, Mainframe can generally be counted on to deliver solid 3D work. Now "Popeye" probably didn't have a huge budget and this is still TV grade animation, so don't expect Pixar level textures or anything. Still, Mainframe does a good job. They incorporate a number of nods to 2D animation, such as Popeye and Bluto beating on each other in a scribbly dust cloud complete with little cartoon swear symbols and Olive producing little floating hearts when a spell causes her to fall in love with Bluto. Some of the backgrounds even use 2D elements with a painted look to them. I guess my one problem with the animation is that the timing and poses seemed a little lacking on occasion. It just didn't have quite the snap that some of the Fleischer cartoons did. It's not quite the "Why isn't this 2D?" feeling I mentioned earlier, but it is a bit of a disappointment.

The movie's real downside, though, is its villain: the Sea Hag. Just about nothing went right with this character. Kathy Bates gives a woefully underwhelming performance. She fails to reach the levels of insanity that the character needs, or any kind of strong emotion at all for that matter. These deathly dull vocals appear to have inspired the animators to similar heights of mediocrity. The Sea Hag is the worst looking character in the whole movie and her animation tends to be stiff. Her "transformation" towards the end of the film is not so much terror inspiring as yawn inducing. It's a real credit to the movies strength that it still manages to be pretty decent with such a lackluster antagonist.

So what about extras? There's a couple of added features on "Popeye's Voyage" to give you a bit more bang for your buck. The "Making of" segment I mentioned before is the best of the bunch. Despite low production values that make everyone look hot and greasy, it's fun to see the animators and voice actors talking about the project with genuine enthusiasm. There are a couple of trailers as well and some character "interviews" which are kind of cute. But one "special feature" is the DVD's biggest blunder short of the Sea Hag. Most Popeye fans agree that the Fleischer Studios cartoons are far and away the best of Popeye's animated adventures. The Mainframe crew says outright that they were trying to make the cartoon the Fleischer brothers would have if they had access to modern 3D animation technology. So WHY did the makers of this DVD not only fail to include any original Fleischer cartoons (which are in the public domain), but also chose to include four cartoons from a much later point in Popeye's career? These shorts are really bad and contain no evidence of any involvement from the Fleischers. Worse still, clips from these cartoons are included in the "Making of" feature. So while the animators talk about their decision to keep the characters' dot eyes or how hard they worked to give Olive her curvy arms, we see a cartoon where Olive has both pupils and elbows. Clearly, someone just wasn't paying attention.

In spite of its flaws, is "Popeye's Voyage" worth seeing? I'd say yes. It may not be the perfect modern Popeye cartoon, but it's still enjoyable. The movie maintains a good balance between humor and heart. Popeye's dialogue in particular should keep older viewers amused. Fans of the Fleischer shorts will appreciate the references to the classic cartoons. Its flaws make it more of a strong rental than a must-have. But thanks to the efforts of cast and crew, "Popeye's Voyage" makes the sailor man's transition to 3D a pleasant one.

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