In large part, Mickey Mouse became wildly popular because Walt Disney fixated on his cuteness, smoothing out the initially rough, mischief-making edges. But Popeye—star of E.C. Segar's Thimble Theater newspaper strip and a landmark series of Fleischer Studios cartoon shorts—never got any cuter than he was in 1929, when Segar introduced him as a muttering brawler whose rage was only assuaged by his love for Olive Oyl. The 60 cartoons on the superbly executed Popeye The Sailor: 1933-1938 DVD set are steeped in Segar's funky nation of grotesques and greed-hounds, but lightened by the Fleischer brothers' nonchalant surrealism. Most of the shorts build to Popeye's big punch-out with some beast or bad guy, but throughout, Popeye keeps hitting big items and reducing them to smaller ones. He even punches a hulking Indian chief, turning him into Mahatma Gandhi. Really.

Because of the repetitive nature of early sound animation, Popeye cartoons are best consumed in small doses. But the Fleischers' frequent experiments with mixed media and forced perspectives—which strove to bring cinematic depth to a moving comic strip—hold up to scrutiny decades later. By the end of this set, the less-froggy, sprier Jack Mercer has replaced original Popeye voice actor Billy Costello, and the cartoons gain an additional dimension of humor with Mercer's under-the-breath improvisation. For the most part, though, the Fleischers remained content to serve up whimsical visual gags and fight after fight after fight, savoring the creative freedom of a relatively new medium. Even the way the characters bob up and down is strangely joyous, as though the Fleischers were telling the audience, "Just watch the drawings move, folks. Neat, huh?"


Key features: Lively and varied commentaries, bonus pre-Popeye cartoons, and extensive, comprehensive featurettes. Even those exhausted by the cartoons should find the extras invigorating, thanks to their historical context and honest appreciation.