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An expensive production for 1980, Popeye became known as so significant an artistic flop, it topped even the previous year's 1941. It was one of the first offerings on then-new cable television; I remember movie channel ads criticizing their competition by saying they ran pictures like Popeye.
Even now, with the cult of Robert Altman more powerful than ever, critics and fans aren't lining up to champion this interesting, sometimes charming, but grossly under-achieving quasi-musical. It has some inspired casting, especially Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall, but the rest of the show lacks a unifying concept, and wallows in Altman-esque directorial 'touches'. Auteur-wise, it's consistent, but most of the time, it's a ponderous lump of a movie.
On DVD, seen for the first time in 23 years in its Panavision dimensions, it's easy to enjoy the the adorable parts and let the rest of Popeye glaze over. And it's certainly too good-natured a film to actually hate ...
Robert Altman has to be the screwiest choice ever to helm a big-budgeted family musical, after his one comedy smash M*A*S*H and a half-dozen quasi-comedies of the 70s. Paramount clearly wanted to horn in on Warners' franchisable Superman success, and the concept of Popeye skips over the old Max Fleischer cartoon series, back to the original E.C. Seagar comic strip. Altman was certainly considered a creative talent, but with his late-70s string of uncommercial, artsy flops, who would have thought that he would deliver anything different from what was finally made?
Altman loves nothing better than creating an oddball little community and populating it with a large ensemble of eccentric actors. The stars and main story thread of M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller stay reasonably out front, but one gets the idea that Altman prefers to set up his little worlds and invent things to make them come to life, while letting lesser considerations like stories take care of themselves. It works splendidly with rambling scenarios like California Split, but pictures like Buffalo Bill and the Indians frustrate the hell out of movie studios - the whole thing is shot freeform, with telephoto lenses from 20 yards away. Altman's direction is to put his actors into a scene so big, nobody can even tell when they're on camera.
The ensemble is the real star of Popeye, and that's the problem. The half-hour's worth of plot is divvied up amid two hours of literal representations of characters from the Segar comic strip - the indescribable original strip populated with an anarchic group of weird misfits wearing costumes seemingly inspired by the same cultural origins of The Gangs of New York. Segar's Popeye strip didn't have characters, just these bizarre types, all speaking a weird polyglot of mangled English. Few of them even relate to each other, and just bounce off one another in a perpetual aggressive mode. Popeye's usual response to everything, even an innocuous problem, was to haul off and pummel someone, with explosive results ... it was all amusing but definitely nothing like human behavior - Swee-pea just reacted a lot, with "!!!!" exclamation points in his thought balloons, and Olive Oyl was just as hostile as any of the other characters. There was never a story, nor anything that even made much sense. The original strip was at least 40% on the way to being an anarchic Zap Comic.
That's the basic setup retained in Jules Feiffer's 'please-explain-this' script, that turns Sweethaven into a Kafka-like town of misery and despair populated by alienated, disfunctional citizens. And since they are played by the actors Altman loves to work with and inspire, they get most of the director's attention.
Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall do amazing impersonations of the characters as we remember them from the Max Fleischer cartoons. Williams' adroit verbal skills are perfect for this kind of patter, as even when mumbling, he's perfectly audible. His Popeye mutters non-stop remarks, oaths, and gloriously mispronounced puns, but is basically a softie, taking lots of abuse before 'busting folks inna mush'. Olive is a ditzy butterfly with an overinflated sense of selfish pride, but basically a good egg. Skinny as a beanpole and awkward as a duck, she's an attractive dish and a lady - by sheer will alone. Duvall's charming take on fantasy would be further demonstrated in the series of cable TV Fairy Tale Theater shows, she produced shortly thereafter.
Even Swee'pea is serendipitous to the brew. Played by an Altman relative, little Wesley Ivan Hurt had a little infant muscle sydrome that causes some babies to distort their faces, something they soon grow out of. Swee'pea's great reactions redeem a lot of scenes, and his interaction is as important to the film as the Popeye's prosthetic 'turkey leg' forearms.
All of the scenes with these three main characters are better than wonderful. Popeye and Olive Oyl have a strange adoring relationship, which is interesting because they hardly ever embrace, let alone kiss. The threesome immediately becomes a little unofficial family in the broken-down Oyl home. Unlike the new town in Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Sweethaven doesn't have a church, and Popeye and Olive's situation has an odd low-life connotation of 'living in sin', completely belied by their obvious innocence.
Little snippets of Harry Nilsson songs are precious beyond words - Savant once taped them off cable to play back to his own kids, infants at the time. They basically express a yearning for the loving family that Popeye and Olive want: "I've been sailing on the seven seas / looking for some buddies who could sail with me ... sail with me / ... And I've been waiting for someone like you, a man who could love me and will promise to, stay with me ... stay with me." Taken on their own, these are wonderful moments.
But overall, the music is incredibly frustrating. Stay With Me and Olive's He Needs Me are delightful little ditties, but they're like intros to real melodies that never come. Olive's He's Large makes its point and then drags on, as does the repeated Sweethaven dirge, with lyrics that go nowhere. Popeye's What Am I? in the gambling 'den of ill repukes' has some oomph, but it's really a lead-in to a main lyric line from the old Popeye the Sailor Man, the song everyone loves, that should have opened the show instead of ended it. As a musical, Popeye is a bunch of fits and starts and fragments.
And that's the weird grief of Popeye - it takes two hours for a setup, and then ends without a real story getting started. Many episodes are amusing - Popeye's rumble in the cafe, the fight on the dock with Oxblood Oxheart, but they don't get very far. We're too concerned with Donald Moffat's Taxman, and our attention is dissipated among 30 colorful but pointless characters who really have no relation to each other. 1
The story meanders for two hours, and finishes with an unexciting chase to a new locale for the ending fight. The producting really falls apart, when our attention drifts to contemplating the complicated but unimpressive boats and sets. Shot in a much-touted Maltese outdoor studio, the sun-baked semitropical setting amid all those rocks never really comes together - the worn houses just don't look like anyone would build them where they are. It's a sort of Disneyland in Disrepair look.
At the end, poor Shelley Duvall yells "Oh Popeye!" about a hundred times, there's some amusing action in the tame fisticuffs between the hero and the villain, and then it's over. Yep, it's a real mess, but I'm going to enjoy DVD's ability to replay my favorite parts of this one.
Paramount's DVD of Popeye looks great, especially in its widescreen Technovision dimensions. Many shots are so wide that individual players are going to get lost on any but bigscreen televisions, I fear, but that's due to Altman's directorial choice. The 5.1 records the ditties (sounds more appropriate than songs) nicely. There's no extras, not even a trailer. It's rated PG, because Popeye says 'shit' once, and his Poopdeck Pappy, obviously asked to make it up as he goes along, runs around yelling 'haul ass' for ten minutes straight.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Popeye rates:
Movie: Good - or Fair +
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 20, 2003
1. There are some standouts. Donovan Scott is an adorable Castor Oyl, and Paul Dooley a nice fussbudget Wimpy. Paul L. Smith is less miscast than his Bluto poorly conceived - as a villain, he's a big nothing. The wonderful Ray Walston (Damn Yankees) would be fine, but he seems to have come in from another movie, and they've given him the worst song (or song fragment) to sing. Linda Hunt sticks out wonderfully, of course, as the tiny mum of the gargantuan Oxblood Oxheart.