Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall and Paul Smith, Popeye came about after Paramount and Columbia Pictures had a bidding war over the film rights to Annie. When Paramount came up short, they mined for similar ideas and one executive came up with the idea for a feature film treatment of Popeye. Originally the studio (now co-producing with Disney) wanted Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as the two leads (Tomlin would've been swell, Hoffman probably not so much), but fortunately newly hired director Robert Altman opted for the perfectly-cast duo of Williams and Duvall. An unconventional choice for a movie of this type, Altman lent his signature style of satirical humor, richly detailed settings and colorful supporting characters, to try and create a three-dimensional world around these two-dimensional characters. Filming took place in Malta, on a lavishly constructed set, and the budget ballooned to a then-extravagant $20 million. The studio panicked and ordered Altman to finish up and bring home what footage he had. The film was released in December 1980 to mixed reviews and less-than-stellar box office receipts; although it grossed $60 million worldwide, it was not the smash hit the studios expected and has since garnered a reputation as one of the great box office bombs.
But Popeye has a lot going for it, and sadly a lot working against it. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of this unusual comic strip adaptation....
Pretty much everyone in this movie is spot-on. Robin Williams (making his feature film debut), while not exactly disappearing into the role, makes a splendid Popeye - likable, matter-of-fact, humble and downtrodden by nature but gallant and heroic when he needs to be. I'm not sure anyone else in 1980 could've brought this character to life as effectively. Ditto for Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, who does a note-perfect live action translation of the gangly damsel in distress. Most of the film's funniest moments involve Duvall's stylized mannerisms, and as someone who's used to seeing her either in hysterics in The Shining, or as Steve Martin's straight-man best friend in Roxanne, it's refreshing to go back and see her in a subtly comedic turn. She might be the best thing about this film, actually. Paul Smith also makes a fantastic Bluto, looking exactly like you'd expect this character to appear as a flesh & blood person, terrifying as he glares about the room growling like an agitated lion. Smith is a helluva lot better in this movie than in Dune, I'll tell ya that much. Ray Walston is the other standout, as Popeye's long-lost father Poopdeck Pappy, AKA The Commodore, conveying a front of cold, dryly amusing gruffness toward his son, which later gives way to genuine pathos as he bonds with Swee'pea. So if nothing else, this film has a strong ensemble cast that's fun to watch as they make believable characters out of these cartoon archetypes.
One of the film's most striking accomplishments is the set of Sweethaven, a structure that still exists today as a Popeye-themed tourist attraction (I need to see this place). In addition to the various landmarks featured in the film, this set also included living quarters for the cast and crew, an editing suite, and a recording studio for Harry Nilsson and his collaborators. This incredible backdrop captured the spirit of Popeye's seafaring cartoon setting, with sharp angles and an impossibly cluttered appearance. The filmmakers spared no expense in crafting this truly ambitious piece of scenery.
|I wanna hang out at this place, maybe pay them Tuesday for a hamburger today.|
Composed by Harry Nilsson, Popeye's quirky, satirical soundtrack is another plus. Songs like "Blow Me Down" and "Sailing" are unmistakably Nilsson-esque, gentle but with a sardonic sense of humor. Other tunes like Bluto's "I'm Mean" and Pappy's "It's Not Easy Being Me" are instantly infectious and impeccable extensions of the characters singing them. I had the soundtrack LP as a kid and listened to it often; the music stuck in my brain more than the movie itself.
Broadway on Film
Popeye is essentially an elaborate Broadway play put to film, except with an entire painstakingly fashioned town serving as the stage set. The scene blocking is right out of musical theater; nonstop character motion, over-the-top mannerisms, multiple conversations happening at once, and a full set of original tunes. How this hasn't been adapted for the stage by now I dunno. Robert Altman clearly wanted to create a new classic film musical, and that spirit comes across in the film even if aspects of it don't work.
So there's a lot going for Popeye, and yet somehow it didn't quite stick the landing. Here are some of the reasons why...
For a movie based on formulaic cartoon shorts, this film takes a good while to really get going, story-wise. They spend a lot of time just world-building, introducing the dozen or so principle and supporting characters, and it's not until after the third musical number that we get a scene of Popeye being the tough dude we know and love, as he beats up a gang of bullies in the diner. From there the film is one episode after another, but without a strong narrative thrust. Popeye gets saddled with raising Swee'pea, Olive backs out of her engagement to Bluto, Bluto taxes the shit out of her family, Popeye wins enough money to keep them afloat by defeating Oxblood Oxheart in a boxing match. Only in the second half of the film is there a real central conflict: it's revealed that Swee'pea has a gift for gambling, so Bluto kidnaps him, then takes Pappy hostage so he'll take him to his buried treasure, then takes Olive hostage as well, then Popeye has to save the day. They somehow stretched out the plot of a single cartoon short to two hours. The fuck?? If you look at this movie almost like a superhero origin story, where Popeye discovers that eating spinach makes him nigh invincible, then it literally takes an hour and forty-five minutes to get us to that. Virtually every Popeye cartoon consists of Bluto beating up Popeye and stealing Olive. Popeye gets trapped in some way where it looks like he's doomed, but then suddenly he eats spinach, breaks free, kicks Bluto's ass, and rescues Olive. That's what every Popeye cartoon is built around, and it doesn't happen here until the end of a two-hour movie. That would be like if Clark Kent didn't run into the phone booth and don the iconic red and blue until the very end of Superman: The Movie. Also aside from pacing issues I feel like the choreography of every scene is lethargic and overly loose, like they needed to clean and tighten it up more.
|One of many little plot detours|
And then after all that, the payoff scene, basically the climax of every Popeye cartoon, takes so long to get to and is so awkwardly executed it's a huge letdown. Popeye and Bluto have a duel, which Popeye loses. Olive is trapped in a boat vent and is being attacked by a giant octopus (which looks embarrassingly terrible, more on that in a bit). Pappy tosses Popeye a can of spinach (which Popeye has heretofore refused to eat), and Bluto forcefeeds it to him, not realizing it will grant him super powers. Popeye eats the spinach, bursts out of the water with a giant uppercut to Bluto, and beats the shit out of the octopus, sending him flying over the island. Bluto then turns yellow and swims away like a coward. After all that buildup, Popeye gets to punch Bluto one time? What kinda half-assed revenge is that? From what I understand, Altman was forced at the last minute to make do with what footage he had, as the budget spiraled to over $20 million and the studio told him to cut filming short. So maybe more was supposed to happen with this climax, but jeezus is it underwhelming. They go from a low-speed boat chase to a clumsily-staged fight, to one of the worst-looking movie monsters of all time. Why did I sit through two hours of idiosyncratic character-building for this?
|This is all Popeye gets. One shot.|
Considering how much this film cost, and in 1980 $20 mil was a lot (by comparison The Empire Strikes Back cost $18 mil), the big effects shots at the end look simply awful. The giant octopus is right out of an Ed Wood movie and Popeye's giant arm swinging up out of the water looks like a carnival ride prop. Where the hell did all the money go? I know the set was expensive but fuck, bring in ILM to assist with the effects shots. I'd have been ashamed to put my name to these effects.
|Legit, right out of Bride of the Monster....|
Charm Without Excitement
The main reason this movie didn't work for mainstream family audiences is that it's just too offbeat an approach for adapting such a simple, beloved concept. Popeye cartoons aren't complicated, they're the same formula over and over again. While I certainly respect Altman's attempt to elevate this material above its comic strip origins and add some complexity to the characters, he didn't handle it in a way that appealed to its target audience, children. Popeye the film is talky, slow-moving, and thin on cartoonish action and funny jokes. For every little visual delight present, there's a bit or a line of dialogue that doesn't quite land. Even the pacing within each scene is clunky and laborious; I feel like you could tighten up the editing across the board and easily trim ten minutes out of this movie without losing anything important. Robert Altman tried to make a film adaptation that would transcend the material, and his affection for it is quite apparent, but I feel like it was the wrong methodology for something as simple and basic as the Popeye mythos. This ain't Batman we're dealing with, it's the spinach-eatin', Bluto-beatin', pipe-smokin', Olive-pokin', ocean-bouncin', mispronouncin' sailor man with the roided-up forearms. Keep it simple, stupid.
-The Pappy-Bluto number "It's Not Easy Being Me," one of the album standouts, contains a bizarre edit in the film that leaves you going, "Wait, did I black out for a second? Am I having a stroke?" On the album Pappy sings the line "Yeah it's hard to be in charge..." then there's a two-beat pause and Bluto comes in with "...even harder bein' large..." followed by another two-beat pause before Pappy continues with "But you're charged when you're in charge/Oh, it's not easy being me." In the movie both aforementioned pauses are removed, cutting two beats out of each measure, and it throws off the whole rest of the verse. Instead of four bars of 4/4 we're left with two bars of 2/4 and two bars of 4/4. It sounds fuckin' stupid. Why edit the song that way, are you that pressed for time?
-Olive Oyl's dad Cole has basically one line throughout the entire movie, that he keeps repeating whenever anyone says, well, anything. It's always some variation of "You owe me an apology." I think he says the line, or something like it, roughly 642 times. Yeah, we get it, dad's an easily-offended snowflake. Stop beating this joke into the ground.
-In the climactic scene while Popeye and Bluto are dueling and Pappy is rescuing Swee'pea, Wimpy and the Oyl family are just sitting there doing nothing. Instead of Popeye getting his ass beat, they could've all ganged up on Bluto and saved Olive from the octopus. Fuckin' help a future in-law out, will ya?
-What a lost opportunity for Bluto. Upon kidnapping Swee'pea he doesn't once think to utter the line, "You're just a bastard from a basket. BASTARD FROM A BASKET!" Sorry, had to do it....
So there's a lot to like about this film, from the performances to the art direction to the songs, up to and including Robert Altman's unconventional attempt to create sophisticated art from a one-note cartoon series. I can't fault him for trying. But in the end Popeye was a near-miss, with a chaotic, perhaps overly ambitious narrative, not enough crowd-pleasing Popeye shenanigans, and a wet fart of a climax. He gave it an admirable go, but it was not the megahit Paramount and Disney were expecting. Still I'd like to see this adapted into a stage musical, as I think it would play better in that medium.
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