It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of classic comic strips,
classic animated cartoons and the character of Popeye.
When I first saw Genndy Tartakovsky’s take on Popeye, now in
development at Sony Pictures Animation, my own eyes popped. Well blow me down! I actually cheered out
Finally, a present day cartoon director with a passion and
point of view to bring this character to a modern audience – with today’s
sensibilities, yet retaining the classic elements from the Segar comic strip
and the old Max Fleischer cartoons.
The clip, Genndy tells us, is only a test – not part of the
film, and the designs aren’t finalized. So any internet nit-picky-negativity is
moot. No pipe? No tattoo? No Spinach? Stop looking for what isn’t there and
start looking at what is: Fun.
That, and marvelous design – and exaggerated cartoony
movement. Genndy has cracked the code – he’s perfected what Pixar, Dreamworks,
Blue Sky and Sony Animation itself have inched towards for years: the perfect melding
of cartooning with computer graphics.
And it works!
And Popeye is the perfect character to demonstrate its
possibilities. With the rich mythology of Elzie Segar’s comic strip serial –
with its numerous characters, situations and exotic locales – combined with the
Fleischer’s screwball animation sensibility and cinematic embellishments
(including the continuing use of Spinach, hilarious fight scenes, a memorable
theme song and Jack Mercer’s enduring “voice” for the character (though
originated by William Costello aka “Red Pepper Sam”)) – there is much great
material to mine.
Let us not forget: Popeye was America’s first super-hero
before superheroes were invented. The biggest comic strip character during the
depression, Popeye became the number one animated cartoon star – topping Mickey
Mouse – in the 1930s. When the cartoons
went to television in the late 50s, Popeye became the number one kids TV
cartoon star of the baby-boomer generation.
Why? Why is a middle aged, grizzled, tattooed, pipe-smoking,
muscle-bound fighter so popular with kids, adults – and Olive Oyl? Everyone has their own answer for that. For
me – as he did during the depression, World War 2 and the mind-blowing 1960s –
Popeye represents the common man, the outcast, the other – one who speaks with
his wits and his fists, and comes out on top despite insurmountable obstacles.
We identify with him and want to be him. He’s not handsome
or a cover model – he’s us. And, as the Fleischer cartoons and Segar strip
recall, he’s great to watch in action and doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind (mostly
through hilarious ad-libbed mumbles). In short, he’s a real man – warts and
Making movies from books, comic strips or old animated
series is nothing new. But only semi-recently has it been done with the proper
respect to the source material. And when it is – it pays off big for the
studio, the filmmakers and most importantly to the public. Genndy attached to
Popeye may be the greatest Hollywood match making since Joss Whedon took on The
I’m not always a proponent of reviving classic cartoon
characters. There have been some tragic
misfires – Mr. Magoo, Dudley Do-Right or Yogi Bear anyone? But popular cartoon
stars from the past are now part of American culture, our film history and literary legacy. The
great ones don’t deserve to simply live on only in reprint volumes. Their stories must be told again and again and kept alive. Like Zorro, Robin Hood or
No pipe? No tattoo? No Spinach? This is supposedly an origin
story, so I suspect they will all be there in the final product. Along with the
funniest action-packed reboot an American icon ever received. I trust Genndy’s
vision on this – and I think you should too. That’s my “Toot-Toot” cents.