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Popeye: 40th Anniversary Edition
Robert Altman's musical comedy Popeye has had a strange dual reputation since its release in 1980. On the one hand, it is widely dismissed as an infamously misguided financial disaster that ended Altman's one-decade run as a major-studio Hollywood director. It also stalled Robin Williams's big-screen career for a few years. On the other hand, this flick lingers in the memory of certain former children as an agreeably offbeat take on a classic cartoon character that deepens (just a bit) when revisited as an adult. Further proof of this duality: Popeye is well-liked enough to receive a 40th Anniversary Blu-ray release from Paramount, but it clearly bears the brand of a film maudit since it took this darn long to arrive on the format.
Revisiting Popeye on Blu-ray does little to tip the balance further in one direction toward either masterpiece or misfire. The film is sometimes slyly funny and sometimes blatantly unfunny. It is ingeniously conceived in some moments and absolutely bungled in others. It is gleefully unhampered by traditional Hollywood plotting, but this episodic approach comes off as a bit aimless (especially in the film's second half). Harry Nilsson's sketchy song score thumbs its nose at the overblown style of Broadway show music but... well... sometimes it feels a bit thin.
Altman builds out the world of E.C. Segar's original comic strips into a ramshackle seaside village called Sweethaven that's not unlike the town of Presbyterian Church from McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Cartoonist-screenwriter Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge) includes a lot of fan-favorite characters, like squint-eyed, language-garbling Popeye the Sailor (Williams); his clumsy beanpole of a love interest, Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall, impossibly perfect for the role); hulking bully Bluto (Midnight Express's Paul L. Smith); baby Swee'Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt); Popeye's long-lost papa Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston); and burger-obsessed good-for-nothing Wimpy (Paul Dooley). But Feiffer's script also stubbornly subverts expectations by having Popeye start off the film -- gasp!! -- disgusted by spinach. Where the typical cartoon would have audiences wait five minutes -- five and a half, tops -- to see Popeye bust open a can of spinach and become super-strong, the film makes us wait 110 minutes.
That's not to suggest that the film is lacking for pugilistic slapstick. Popeye gets pulled into a brawl at the aptly named Rough House diner, thanks to the taunts of some toughs headed up by a young(er) Dennis Franz. Popeye also jumps into the boxing ring to save Olive's brother Castor Oyl (Donovan Scott) from a pummeling at the hands of Oxblood Oxheart (Peter Bray), the self-proclaimed dirtiest fighter alive. A lot of the physical comedy in the film works, thanks in large part to Robin Williams's full-bodied commitment. (Theatrical clown Bill Irwin can also be spotted in the periphery of various scenes, doing throwaway physical gags.)
A lot of the verbal comedy works pretty well too, with Williams accurately aping the under-the-breath muttering of '30s Popeye voice actor Jack Mercer. Altman also stacks the surrounding ensemble with character actor heavyweights like Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, Roberta Maxwell, MacIntyre Dixon, and Linda Hunt to sharpshoot laughs in unexpected moments.
For better and worse, Popeye is a film of moments. While Feiffer has supplied a handful of story threads -- Popeye's search for his long-lost father, Bluto's jealousy over Olive and Popeye's burgeoning romance, Swee'Pea's sixth sense and the trouble it causes, the mysterious Commodore who runs Sweethaven -- none of them can really sustain a two-hour movie. Altman's fondness for digression works well in a rich tapestry like 1975's Nashville, but it's far more hit-and-miss in an intentionally comic-strip-flat creation like this. As Pauline Kael noted in her New Yorker review of the film: "Two-dimensionality is tiresome."
Adult viewers coming to Popeye as Altman fans will probably enjoy themselves more than dedicated fans of the old cartoons. Young viewers coming to Popeye for the first time probably won't know what hit 'em.
Popeye is packaged with a digital HD code.
The AVC-encoded 1080p 2.35:1 presentation is excellent. No distracting dirt or damage. Colors are richly saturated. Strong clarity and depth. A high bitrate that takes advantage of the space on this BD-50 disc.
The soundtrack is presented in either Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround or lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo (224kbps). Both mixes are supportive and cleanly present the idiosyncrasies of Altman's preferred sound design and Nilsson's oddball songs. Subtitle options: English, English SDH, French.
(HD, 13:29) - A fast but fairly forthright reflection on the film's production. It's cobbled together from a 1999 interview with Robert Altman, a 2014 interview with Robin Williams, and 2020 Zoom interview with prop master (and future production designer) Stephen Altman.
Robert Altman's Popeye is one odd movie. Its unusual aspects are what make it memorable, lovable, and puzzling all at once. Paramount's Blu-ray features a strong A/V presentation and a sprinkling of interesting bonuses. It's modestly priced to boot. That combo of ingredients makes it easier to suggest a purchase for longtime fans or even just the boldly curious. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. His new album of experimental ambient music, Joyce, is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.