Max Fleischer produced 108 Popeye cartoons between 1933 and 1942, and cynics would say it’s a marvel how much mileage he got out of just one plot. The old salt’s animated adventures are certainly a touch repetitive where the stories are concerned (Bluto threatens Olive Oyl, Popeye eats spinach and kicks ass; wash, rinse, repeat), but the visual imagination on display in the 60 shorts collected here is downright breathtaking. Assembled with the loving attention to detail that characterizes Warner Bros.’ superb DVDs of its live-action classics, the first volume of Fleischer’s Popeye cartoons does away with the retracing and colorization that marred TV prints for decades. The bold line work and 3-D backdrops in the 58 beautifully restored black-and-white shorts result in animation that puts other Depression-era studios to shame (yes, even Disney), and the two double-length Technicolor toons raise the bar even higher.
Unlike many such archival sets, this one features commentary tracks by working animators as well as film historians, and it makes a huge difference. On four cartoons, Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, TV animator Eddie Fitzgerald and grad student Kali Fontecchio dissect Fleischer’s technical achievements with infectious awe, and their amazement suggests that while the art form has gained a lot by moving from cels to pixels, it may have lost even more.