Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Jules Feiffer & story by Robert Altman (based on the comic created by E.C. Segar)
Produced By: Walt Disney Productions, King Features Syndicate, & The Hearst Corporation
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Starring: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith
Release Date: December 12, 1980
MPAA: Rated PG
“He’s Popeye the Sailor Man! He’s Popeye…” well you know the rest. And if you don’t…well, you should, so be sure to check out as much Popeye as you can after reading this! Popeye started out as a comic in 1929, and quickly became a widespread cultural icon, appearing in 638 Popeye cartoons between 1933 and 1988, over 200 episodes of Popeye radio shows, and three different animated series lasting from the 1960s through the 1980s. On top of that, there have been nearly a dozen Popeye games, a museum/tourist attraction, and four movies. One of those movies, for which the set became the aforementioned museum, was a live-action feature starring Robin Williams as the lovable yet feisty sailor.
The general premise throughout the various media concerning Popeye is that Popeye falls into good graces with Olive Oyl (his love interest), but she generally makes him work pretty hard to win her affections, and often becomes the target of a villainous would-be suitor in the form of Bluto (Popeye’s rival). That’s it, folks. The story has no major continuity, and often just retells the same scenario of Popeye proving himself to Olive, usually by rescuing her from something or someone, in all manner of settings whether it be fighting Ali Baba and His Forty Thieves, or rival lumberjacks up to no good (all almost always portrayed by Bluto), and occasionally shakes things up by tossing in an additional goal or adventure. This movie sets up the same sort of premise with Olive seemingly engaged to the vile and terrifying bully Bluto (who basically runs the whole town), when Popeye arrives looking for his long-lost father. Crazy antics ensue, and eventually Popeye defeats Bluto, saving the day and winning Olive’s affections.
Oh! Did I mention that this movie is a musical? No! Well, it is! And what a weird musical it turns out to be indeed. Much like a good number of the animated iterations of Popeye, this story features singing, lots of singing, lots of weird singing of weird songs, all of which are surprisingly, strangely, catchy, fun, toe-tappingly fun, and more importantly an oddly faithful representations of these characters and the world they live in. The music is a great example of the overall tone of the film. It’s absurd, quirky, insane, and wholly unbelievable, yet played with such sincerity and humanity that you totally believe it.
The film as a whole is done as a live-action recreation of the older animated incarnations of the comic, complete with over the top antics and wild slapstick goofiness, so much so that it’s quite understandable how one might not like this film. In the opinion of this reviewer, though, as much as I tried to find fault with this film, I simply couldn’t. The movie is peppered with these sincere, touching moments where Popeye bears his feelings to Olive or has a sentimental moment alone thinking about his father, seemingly out of place within the confines of this film or the original source material, but these scenes just help the viewer to buy into the fact that this is a real world.
It should be noted how intriguing it is to see these exaggerated characters brought to life, primarily through costuming (the right wardrobe and properly over-sized shoes), facial expressions/contortions, and physical comedy, considering the only major uses of make-up and prosthesis involve recreating Popeye’s comically over-sized limbs.
The pacing drags on in places, nearly bringing the film to a complete halt, though that sort of directing seems intentional, given that this film was directed by none other than Robert Altman, who brought us M.A.S.H., Images, Nashville, and A Wedding.
The best parts of this movie come from the odd moments where the quirky songs, which should be downright annoying but surprisingly aren’t, combine with the action on screen to somehow faithfully capture the essence of the comics and cartoons. Just watch, and enjoy musical numbers like “Everything is Food” (the dinner theme and Wimpy’s song) or “I’m Mean” (Bluto’s song). But the absolute best comes from “I Yam What I Yam,” sung by Popeye, and full of great little Popeye-isms, when he’s taken all he can “stands” and he “can’t stands no more.” It’s a real treat to see that Robin Williams is playing this completely seriously, and can actually sing while doing a near-perfect impression of Popeye. I guarantee you’ll be singing along the next time you watch this film (and you will eventually get the urge to watch again).
Other than the slow pace of the film, another minor complaint toward this film is in regard to its occasional use of swear words. While not often and not even altogether very noticeable, their existence at all in such a film is a serious detractor, considering the family-friendly nature of the subject matter.
One final gripe stems not from the aforementioned odd pacing or tone, but from the actual story. This film serves as an origin story of sorts, detailing the first time Popeye meets Olive and Bluto, and also finds his adopted son Swee’Pea. This story also serves to show us the first time Popeye eats spinach (for those of you who don’t know, spinach gives Popeye superhuman strength and agility, and make him a borderline superhero). In this film, Popeye hates spinach and it isn’t until the very end of the film that he finally eats the darn food to gain his superpowers, even though he’s been fighting baddies and generally saving the day without it all up to that point.
Is the movie perfect? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Is it fun? Well, that’s up to you. This movie seems to garner very mixed opinions from both ends of the spectrum. Personally, I like it, but completely acknowledge that this film is just plain odd, too odd at times to be enjoyable. However, when this film gets things right, it gets them really right.
All in all I’d give this film 7 out of 10.
If you haven’t seen it, check it out. If you have seen it, give it another watch (you won’t regret it). Also, be sure to check out all of the various Popeye cartoons, and pick up some of the collections of the comics. And if you’re feeling really brave, there’s a NEW Popeye film supposedly set to come out some time in 2014.