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YouTube Will Give ‘Popeye’ the ‘Cobra Kai’ Treatment

Popeye, the Sailor Man, to get hip or die.
By  · Published on May 22nd, 2018

Popeye, the Sailor Man, to get hip or die.

I yam what I yam and dats what I yam. Cue Thor squint, “Is he though?” The character of Popeye may have once ruled the public consciousness, but the spinach-loving seaman has felt dated for at least as long as I have been on this Earth (38 years or so). How do you convince the 21st Century to give a damn when multiple reboots have already failed? Confidence.

According to Variety, the classic animated adventurer will be resurrected in a new series of originals for YouTube. The new program is the result of a collaboration between the digital kids’ network WildBrain and King Features Syndicate (which currently brokers all licensing agreements around the Popeye franchise). They’re looking to imitate the “squash-and-stretch” animation style most recently seen in the Cuphead indie video game and Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” Go get that retro cool vibe.

Popeye, the Sailor Man, began life in the daily comic strip, “Thimble Theater” in 1929. He did not strike national notoriety until Max Fleischer translated the character into a series of cartoon theatrical shorts for Paramount Pictures. From there, he prospered until 1957. His spinach-fueled strength brought him up against Bluto, the bearded bully who was constantly on the advance towards the sailor’s beloved Olive Oyl. With his trusty pipe capable of transforming into any necessary tool, from blowtorch to jetpack, Popeye was quick to combat personal injustice.

Robert Altman famously took on the challenge of adapting Popeye as a musical comedy starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. The film sputtered at the box office while most critics slaughtered the attempt. However, there were a few positive standouts. Most notably Roger Ebert, who believed that Altman had elevated the source material to “high comedy and high spirits.” In 2014, Vanity Fair critic Eric Spitznagel called Popeye the best film Robin Williams ever made.

Despite a few fans, Popeye’s chances of recapturing popularity were dead in the water. Spider-Man producer, Avi Arad undertook the property for a brief period at Sony Pictures. Hiring Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky to direct the 3D feature, the new iteration was supposed to be “artful and unrealistic.” Unfortunately, those forever prevalent creative differences reared their ugly head, and Tartakovsky fled the project for Hotel Transylvania. The internet did not riot. We shrugged our shoulders if we noticed at all.

And yet, the King Features Syndicate says the demand for Popeye is as strong as it ever was. According to them, Popeye’s digital channels (which include YouTube as well as other social platforms) consist of more than 3.2 million minutes of video viewing. Their Facebook following ranks just below ten million.

King Features president, C.J. Kettler has total faith that Popeye’s popularity is ready to explode again:

“WildBrain has the secret sauce that will help Popeye connect with his audience of millions around the world while growing his fan base exponentially through fresh new animation as we head into his [90th] anniversary year.”

YouTube is making a massive play in the streaming service marketplace. They were one of the first to stake their claim on the space. Now, as Cobra Kai steals a little bit of our attention, YouTube is looking to grow into a combatant worthy of Netflix. Will Popeye earn them the eyeballs they need to stay relevant?

I am doubtful. I love the character as much as the next person. I was vastly curious to see what Tartakovsky could have accomplished with his Sony concept. Still, Popeye remains your grandfather’s cartoon. A bit dusty.

WildBrain and the King Features Syndicate need to name a creative genius behind this endeavor before I get excited. If the overworked Guillermo del Toro steps up, I’ll change my tune. Maybe they can transform Popeye into a pertinent figure for modern conversation. Cuphead certainly looks rad; I bought all the Funko Pop! toys.

I just can’t help but think of those other 90s attempts to recapture golden age cool: Dick Tracy, The Shadow, The Rocketeer, and The Phantom. I dig those films to varying degrees, but none of them spawned a financial success. Just because you have the right to a character doesn’t mean anyone still cares. Popeye needs more than a hope to hang his hat on.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)