Popeye (1980) / Comedy-Musical
MPAA rated: PG for violence and some mild rude humor
Running time: 114 min.
Cast: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Ray Walston, Donovan Scott, Donald Moffatt, Richard Libertini, Wesley Ivan Hurt, Bill Irwin, Linda Hunt
Small role: Dennis Franz
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Jules Feiffer
Review published June 23, 2012
E.C. Segar's original comic strip provides the basis for this cinematic live-action adaptation of the popular titular character, which had also been popularized through the cartoons by Max Fleischer, revolving around a burly but comical sailor (Williams, Club Paradise) who lands himself in the quaint seaside town of Sweethaven in the hopes of finding the long-lost father (Walston, Silver Streak) he barely remembers. While there, he develops a thing for a local lanky gal named Olive Oyl (Duvall, Annie Hall), who herself is the best gal of the mean and powerful man about town, Bluto (Smith, Midnight Express). The unlikely couple eventually find common ground when they become the adopted parents of an abandoned baby boy, whom they name Swee' Pea (Hurt). With a son of his own, Popeye's family is still not complete, as he yearns to reunite with the father he never really knew.
Perhaps best known as the first big starring role for comedian Robin Williams, this would prove a very curious vehicle for esteemed director Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye, Brewster McCloud), whose distancing long shot style, crowded mise-en-scene, detached character reactions, and improvisational method of dealing with his actors are a bit more sophisticated than a pop culture vehicle based on a readily-identifiable comic character usually calls for. Despite Altman's critical darling status, the critics ripped the film to shreds at the time of release, which usually follows big-budget films that are steadily in the news as suffering from a slew of production problems. Far from an all-American feel, the filming took place on the island of Malta, lensed by Fellini cinematographer Giusseppe Rotunna (The Witches, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), and its foreign locale work and obvious re-dubbing (perhaps to be able to hear the characters' mumblings and moanings) give it all a European feel.
Popeye is a very difficult film to recommend, as it is a misfire as a Popeye movie, but it isn't a bad movie taking it strictly on its own terms. It always comes down to expectations as far as how big movies are received, and when Altman turned in a somewhat dark, somewhat morose , somewhat low-key, somewhat serious work when everyone had been expecting a hilarious musical comedy, disappointment abounded. The musical numbers themselves are perhaps the most problematic to assimilate, as the songs, with music and lyrics by Harry Nilsson, are barely sung, barely danced to, and roll out of the characters mouths as if all part of the conversations that precede them. That, and the fact that the cast isn't exactly graced with excellent singers or dancers (or even good ones).
Robin Williams impresses in his debut, giving an endearing portrayal of the mumbling sailor, and even showing a good deal of fleetness of foot in some of the dance and fight sequences. He squints throughout, with prosthetic forearms and calves that does make him seem more cartoonish, with the trademark sailor suit and corncob pipe, one always sees Robin underneath the impersonation, but he emerges as a fine comical character worth listening to as he mutters some funny phrases under his breath. Tall and lanky Shelley Duvall makes for a perfect Olive Oyl, and it would be difficult to come up with an actress who could have embodied the look and feel of the character better. Paul Smith is certainly the right casting for Bluto physically, but at a price, as he offers very little dialogue and his songs are obviously sung by someone else. Dooley is quite good as the quaintly obtuse moocher, Wimpy. But the delight in casting comes through an unlikely source -- one couldn't ask for a sweeter, more loveable turn by a baby than Wesley Ivan Hurt's Swee' Pea, who just happens to be Altman's grandson.
Popeye is messy, flawed, and probably not the kind of movie anyone would have asked for in a Popeye film, but it remains, as with most Altman works, a perplexing and surprisingly thoughtful work that can be appreciated once one overcomes the initial rejection of it as the embodiment of the character they know and love. As a recreation of a pop culture phenomenon, it's a poor encapsulation, but as its own work that takes the essence of one thing and transforms into another, Altman manages to deliver something just a little too special to toss away. Even a flawed work of art can yield something to love.
- Trivia: The Olive Oyl song, "He Needs Me", would later be used in the 2002 movie, Punch-Drunk Love.
©2012 Vince Leo