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  • Writer's picturePopEntertainment

Popeye 40th Anniversary (A Video Review)

Updated: Sep 30, 2023


Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, MacIntyre Dixon, Donovan Scott, Roberta Maxwell, Allan Nicholls, Wesley Ivan Hurt, Bill Irwin, Robert Fortier, David McCharen, Sharon Kinney, Peter Bray, Linda Hunt, Wayne Robson, Van Dyke Parks, Klaus Voormann and Dennis Franz.

Screenplay by Jules Feiffer.

Directed by Robert Altman.

Distributed by Paramount Home Video. 114 minutes. Rated PG.

Even in 1980, the creation of Popeye seemed a little out there. The character was way old-fashioned and campy, so what really was the chance that a musical film version would float?

However, it had a lot of things going for it. It would be helmed by legendary director Robert Altman – who was looking for a big hit after the lukewarm replies for his last few more personal films. The film was written by legendary cartoonist, author, playwright and screenwriter Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge).

The music and lyrics were written by respected pop/rock singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson, whose career was also a bit on the skids due to drug usage but was still acknowledged as a musical genius. (Nilsson’s score is one of the best things about the film.)

They also built a humongous, expensive, self-contained set; a whirligig of action and motion which seemed almost like a Disneyland shantytown ride.

So much was expected of this film that it was one of those rare occasions in which a movie was made by two of the major movie studios – Paramount and Walt Disney.

And this was the first lead role in a film for Robin Williams, who had recently become a shooting star with his popular sitcom Mork and Mindy. Williams’ role as the sailor man is interesting. It is a spectacular imitation of the character, however it’s so all-consuming that his acting sort of gets swallowed up by the mimicry of an always slightly odd role. It wasn’t until his next film – The World According to Garp – that we learned what a subtle and smart actor Williams was.

However, if Williams was punching a little over his weight here, the casting agent who chose Altman regular Shelley Duvall (The Shining) as Popeye’s love Olive Oyl was a pure genius.

Popeye is cartoonish – which makes sense, I suppose, it is based on a cartoon – but eventually it gets to all be a bit too much, too twee, too over-the-top. There isn’t all that much of a story, Popeye sails into the small town in search of his long-lost father. (One of the better sight gags in the film has Popeye kissing good night to a framed picture and then you see it is just a piece of cardboard which reads “My poppa.”)

He runs afoul of Bluto, the muscle-bound local government boss. He befriends locals like the cheap burger scarfing Wimpy (“I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”). He rents a room with the Oyl family, eventually falling into a love hate relationship with gawky daughter Olive. They find an abandoned baby named Sweet Pea.

Sometimes it was a bit unconventional – this Popeye doesn’t like spinach, ferchrissakes.

The dialogue tries a bit too hard, way too many jokes land with a thud. The action sequences are so overdone that they feel like a live-action animation. (I know that was the point, but it doesn’t work as well as they would have liked.)

In the end, despite all the high hopes, Popeye was considered a bit of a flop upon release. With 40 years of hindsight, it’s not all that hard to see why. When you get right down to it, Popeye was not a good film. In fact, in many ways it was pretty disappointing. Still, it was a rather fascinating failed attempt and worth watching just to see all the crazy topsy-turvy ideas that just didn’t quite work.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: December 6, 2020.


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