(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
This cartoon, released one year almost to the day after the success of Popeye’s previous color landmark, Sindbad the Sailor, is perhaps a teeny notch down from its predecessor, just as The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races is a tad-paler sequel to A Night at the Opera. But in each case, the good stuff in either movie is so good, must we quibble?? (Anyway, when that credit/cave door opens and the swanky theme music starts, I admit I’m suckered in every time.)
Naturally, the movie starts with Ali Baba (Bluto, typecast again) singing a song, this one about how he and the thieves are tough, rather than how he tamed a bunch of hyper-monsters. Having a bunch of braggarts sing is a bit New Kids on the Block “Hangin’ Tough” compared to singing about the wild animals you’ve tamed, so Bluto automatically starts off a bit lagging here.
Instead of Popeye sailing on a generic ship, here he starts off with a slightly topical reference, as a soldier at the Coast Guard Station. (Typical of the Fleischers’ attention to detail, they even show the sun gleaming off Popeye’s bald head.) Wimpy sits about a Spruce Goose-like contraption that Popeye launches upon getting word of Ali Baba’s shenanigans. Olive Oyl comes along for the ride, and the Goose literally bounces all over the globe before crashing in the Middle East.
The trio traipse through the desert, encountering some anachronistic gags predating the style of Bugs Bunny’s 1955 Sahara Hare. (Like Bugs, Wimpy sees a very elaborate mirage — in this case, a table laden with food.) Eventually, Olive collapses (but not before Popeye briefly props her up like a camel), as does Wimpy. Popeye threads himself and the other two together as a makeshift tire and rolls into town.
They enter a café, and one of the few outright racist gags of the movie occurs when Popeye is handed a menu in Arabic (which of course he can’t read), until it’s pieced together as a jigsaw puzzle into English. (But Jack Mercer’s chattering here, and elsewhere in the movie, is terrific.)
Popeye and Olive hear a radio broadcast in which the announcer warns of Ali Baba’s arrival by reiterating A.B.’s theme song. (Like Ali Baba needed product placement?) Everyone and everything go into hiding (a clock hides his hands away, even), including the radio after it’s finished its announcement.
Ali Baba’s gang enters and leaves so quickly, they’re literally just a blur. Popeye slows down Ali Baba long enough to try to fight with him, but Ali hangs Popeye from the ceiling as a chandelier and makes off with Olive and Wimpy. Popeye escapes and fuels up a camel (!) to catch the gang.
Ali and his crew enter and close their cave, but Popeye uses his pipe as a blowtorch to cut open an entrance. The cave, like that in Sindbad the Sailor, is another 3D delight for the eyes. In the cave, Popeye finds Olive (forced to do the thieves’ laundry) and Wimpy (chained up just beyond reach of Ali’s huge meal, though of course he manages a few steals). (Gotta love Ali’s guttural sounds when he eats, too — he makes Wimpy look a model of etiquette.)
Ali Baba catches Popeye and throws him to the thieves, who pass him around like a wiffle ball and then dangle him just above a man-eating shark. In the nick of time (surprise!), Popeye remembers his spinach can and tells it to “Open, sez-me!” In a series of extremely satisfying gags, Popeye subdues Ali and his thieves and has them lead a victory parade for himself and his pals.
This might be a strange complaint for a Popeye cartoon, but my only problem with the movie is that it is perhaps too gaggy. I liked the straight-faced fairy-tale style of Sindbad the Sailor a little better; this movie’s sometimes-peculiar jokiness seems to pave the way for the irony-laden CGI cartoons of the 2000’s. That said, it’s still a delightful cartoon on all counts.