RIC MEYERS: Kung Fu Popeye
I suppose I could have titled this pre-San Diego Comic Con installment “Popeye Hustle,” but I think that would’ve given the improper connotation. The new four-DVD boxed set from Warner – Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938 – (available July 31st) is anything but a hustle. And, in fact, the present column title is all the more apt because there’s some of the best kung-fu I’ve seen recently within these first sixty Popeye cartoons.
“Kung Fu” actually means “hard work,” not “martial arts,” but there’s a lot of both on display here – from the labor the Max (and Dave) Fleischer Studios lavished on these cartoons to the more than ample martial arts expended by the Sailor Man and all his antagonists (especially Bluto) in every minute of these more than three hundred and sixty animated minutes.
I say “more than,” because, in addition to the dozens of remastered black & white original cartoons, the set also includes two of the justifiably famous “two-reel” color mini-movies: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad (sic) the Sailor, and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. If the Fleischer Studios had only made a feature length Popeye (as well as a feature version of their beautifully made Superman cartoons), they might have remained as eminent as the Disney Studio.
But this handsome, reverent, and exhilarating set will hopefully go a long way to returning them to their rightful pantheon, despite the hundreds of inferior Popeye cartoons made by other studios since 1941. These almost pristine (the remastering process retains the rough edges of the cartoons as they were originally released) nuggets of aggressive mayhem are a welcome blast of fresh air in the fog of politically correct nonsense, which elicits waves of nostalgic pleasure with each spinach swallow and successive bout of frenzied fisticuffs.
Popeye’s legendary theme song, and oft-repeated quotes of “I yam what I yam,” and “that’s all I can stand, I can’t stand no mores,” clearly marks him as an inspiration for Bugs Bunny’s later feistiness (not to mention “this calls for a little stragedy,” and “don’t go up dere, it’s dark”) — and the set’s extras make that ultra clear. To say that there’s a wealth of featurettes and pleasant surprises is putting it mildly. Each disc has at least two engrossing docs detailing Popeye’s (and animation’s) extraordinary history, voices, music, and characters, as well as audio commentaries and mini-docs that they call “Popumentaries.”
The icing on the cake are a whole bunch of other Fleischer Studio cartoons “From the Vaults” – that is, the era before the 1930s, when cartoons were just starting and fascination, if not delight, could be found in inventive silence. At first these ancient animations seem too crude to be bothered with, but watching the just-drawn likes of Koko the Clown dealing with an animated “live-action” fly soon leads to many minutes of amazed viewing.
The original Popeye cartoons were rude, raw, violent, vigorous, imaginative, inventive, ingenious, and inspired. Now they’re back, better than ever, and a fitting foundation for the golden age of rude and vigorous cartoons (Simpsons, Family Guy, Robot Chicken, Venture Brothers, et al) we’re now enjoying.
Joining Popeye in brawling splendor is the new-ish “Axe-Kickin’ Edition” of Kung Fu Hustle from Sony. I’m relieved to report (for myself, not necessarily for you) that all the rumors of this being “all-new,” even down to the extras, are not true. So, what I was once calling the “Ric-Kickin’” or “Axe-Ric-ing” edition is actually the original cut of the film with some welcome, albeit short, extra special features. In other words, my infamous half-hour interview with director/writer/star Stephen Chow remains on disc, complete with what one wag called my “frightening beard and even more frightening shirt.”
The “never-before-seen footage from the Hong Kong version” the package promotes is literally several seconds of bodily fluids originally excised, and the extras imported from Comedy Central are about seven minutes of Q&A. But the real gold here are three new-to-DVD docs about the film’s costumes, production design, and kung-fu choreography – featuring a rare interview with justifiably vaunted action director Yuen Wo-ping. That makes this edition (following the initial and Blu-ray releases) the best version for gweilos (Chinese for white devils) to understand how this loving, action-packed, satire of 1930s – 1970s Chinese movies remains the highest grossing hit in Hong Kong history.
And I’m still in there, dealing with a jet-lagged and slightly hung over Stephen. Nyah, nyah, nyah.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective, The Weekly World News and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.