- Directed by Robert Altman
- December 6, 1980 (Los Angeles) / December 12, 1980 (United States)
Popeye arrives in the sleepy seaside town of Sweethaven looking for his father and runs afoul of the local bully Bluto and the mysterious Commodore.
It has been ages since I saw Popeye and I finally got around to watching my recently purchased Blu-ray copy that I ordered well before watching for this blog. Popeye is one of those films that will please fans of the old cartoons but maybe not the general movie audience-at least not these days. Too many people want “new spins” or “edgy” and this is a loving combination of the old strip and the film serials. Altman honored the material and did not seek to make it his own.
Robin Williams was the perfect choice to play Popeye. There was no one else back then who could have played the iconic sailor. Dustin Hoffman was reportedly up for the part before it went to Williams. Williams was the character brought to life. Not only does he look the part, but he perfectly acts the part. Robin Williams style was ideal for the character though reportedly his penchant for adlibbing caused issues with Altman.
I think it would be difficult to argue against saying Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl. Not only does she look the part, but she perfectly emulates the character. Having grown up on a steady diet of the cartoons she was absolutely ideal. Lily Tomlin was originally considered for the part in the iteration that was to include Hoffman before Duvall got the role. While a talented actress, there is no way Tomlin could have been as good as Duvall here. In fact I dare say everyone was perfectly cast from a talent/physical perspective. They do a pretty fine job for making the actors look like the characters. Popeye even has the bulging forearms. Pappy, Bluto, and Wimpy are easily recognizable.
Popeye the character started out in a comic strip called Thimble Theatre (before he became the star and it was renamed Popeye) and I am assuming some of the characters I am unfamiliar with are ones from the comic that never made it into the animated short films or even the Saturday morning series that was running at the time. A quick search shows that her family in the film-Cole Oyl (MacIntyre Dixon), Nana Oyl (Roberta Maxwell), and Castor Oyl (Donovan Scott) who are all named after oils-appeared in the strip, but I do not recall them from the shorts or the show.
Popeye is an origin film that tells how Popeye came to find himself in Sweethaven and how he met up with all the supporting characters. Bluto (Paul L. Smith), J. Wellington Wimpy (played by the amazing and versatile Paul Dooley), Popeye’s dad Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston), Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), and so many more show up as they are effectively introduced without taking away from the two leads. These days, especially in Marvel films, when an additional character shows up in the story they often crowd out the title character. Not so here.
As I said it is an origin story. It mostly goes around establishing the character relationships with the climax almost being unnecessary. This could be because the cost of the film eventually rose to $20 million which triggered Paramount to order Altman back to California with whatever he had.
Popeye embraces a cartoon logic every step of the way and at some points emulates Disney. This was after all a Disney and Paramount coproduction in a deal that also produced Dragonslayer. The songs present do not necessarily tell too much story but rather serve to highlight a particular moment in the film. You could easily take them out and not harm the narrative.
There is good direction and bouncy dialogue and enough cartoonish situations that are a wink and a nod to what it came from. For example a feature of old comics and animated shorts was a character literally turning yellow which the villain of Bluto does at the end when he swims away. The octopus fight in the finale is exactly the kind of thing you find in an older cartoon. The town of Sweethaven was built for the film and to an extent greater than was necessary for production. It still exists in Malta and is known as Popeye’s Village. They even acknowledge the old cartoons in a meta way with the then voice of Popeye Jack Mercer voicing the character in the opening.
Is Popeye the greatest movie? No but it is entertaining and will keep your kids happy and perhaps take you down memory lane. This is an if you want but it’s an if you want I urge you to want.