Popeye (1980)


(director/writer: Robert Altman; screenwriter: Jules Feiffer/based on the cartoon of E. C. Seegar; cinematographer: Giuseppe Rotunno; editors: John W. Holmes/David Simmons; music: Van Dyke Parks; cast: Robin Williams (Popeye), Shelley Duvall (Olive Oyl), Ray Walston (Poopdeck Pappy), Paul Dooley (Wimpy), Paul L. Smith (Bluto), Richard Libertini (Geezil), Donald Moffat (Taxman), Linda Hunt (Mrs. Oxheart), Wesley Ivan Hurt (Swee’ Pea); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Robert Evans; Paramount; 1980)

“A wacky treat.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Iconoclastic director/writer Robert Altman (“Mash”/”Nashville”) bases his film on E. C. Segar’s long-running popular comic strip hero Popeye and miraculously turns it into an exhilarating musical adventure story. Noted Village Voice writer Jules Feiffer contributes to the witty politically motivated screenplay. In case you forgot, Popeye (Robin Williams, in his starring debut) is the sailor with the bulging forearms (induced by prosthetic) and a squinty left eye, who gains instant strength after downing a can of spinach–but in this oddball version the sailor can’t stand the stuff.

Popeye comes back to the seaside town of Sweethaven, mired in the midst of a severe economic depression, to find his lost father who abandoned him, mumbling to himself snide comments in a dialect that is not recognizable about such things as ‘venerable disease.’ He also takes snipes at the greedy tax collector, bullies, and the social malaise and oppressiveness of the town. And, he cheerfully waxes lyrical over his philosophy: “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.” Soon he takes the lanky Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) away from her soon to be promised spouse, the strong-arm ruffian for the tax man, Captain Bluto (Smith), and begins a fun-filled courtship. The couple sparkle together, looking every bit like the cartoon characters–down to their bumbling moves and bizarre expressions. The film works so well despite being so weird because Williams is a surprisingly perfect fit as Popeye. Who would have ‘thunk’ that! While Duvall is a perfect match for him, capturing the cartoonish expressions and comic nature of her character. Swee’ Pea is the little pod that binds the couple together, as they adopt this little foundling tyke who was abandoned at their feet. The tyke leads them to Popeye’s dad, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston), for a happy cartoon-like conclusion.

Sweethaven’s dilapidated set and labyrinth wharf erected on the island of Malta is alluringly atmospheric. Harry Nilsson’s lighthearted off-kilter ballads contribute wonderfully to the freaky mood. Altman’s off-beat humor is certainly far too sophisticated for the kiddies, while the slapstick might only wet their appetite for more silliness. Yet this big-budget family film, contortions and all, somehow gets it all together and catches the full slapdash flavor of the cartoon making it one helluva of a wacky treat. It’s too bad so many critics heaped contempt on this Popeye version, as on retrospect it has more energy and vibrancy than the usual simplistic Disney cartoon.