Robert Altman’s 1980 musical adaptation of Popeye, based on the legendary comic strip by E.C. Segar is one of the strangest, goofiest, off-kilter curiosities ever made. A fascinating, big budget comedy musical with art house sensitivity, that entertains most of the time while suffering from an extremely uneven pace.
Altman, whose gentle way with actors may appear initially as the wrong choice for this material, brings instead his typical offbeat humor that approximates the spirit of its source beautifully. By treating his material in a more straight forward fashion, free from camp, he has turned Popeye in a respectful and extremely faithful adaptation of Segar’s source material. Unfortunately, Altman’s humor is sometimes too sophisticated for its young target audience and the lack of storyline and character development sometimes slows down the enjoyment of it all. Also his handling of slapstick comedy is strangely distant serving more for mood than for actual laughs. The screenplay although filled with clever lines and quirky moments lacks dramatic drive and is filled with many underdeveloped characters that don’t add much to the whole enterprise.
But some of these issues aside, the movie also accomplishes wonderful nutty moments and does an amazing job of capturing the spirit of a live action cartoon without thankfully the need of any CGI effects. Much credit should be given to the work of Wolf Kroeger, the production designer, who has come up with a spectacular physical universe. His Sweethaven set, built on location on the island of Malta consists of a detailed and atmospheric fishing village where streets run at crazy angles and all the buildings lean together dangerously on the coast side. All of this highlight by some spectacular photography by Guissepe Rottuno, Federico Fellini’s favorite cameraman.
Robin Williams is terrific in the title role. He is completely convincing even with his big realistic brawny forearms, trademark of his character. Mr. Williams ironically takes a subtle approach on his characterization of Popeye, relying less on his all out persona and focusing instead in the parental sweetness of his character when dealing with his new found son Sweet Pea and in relating romantically with Olive Oyl. Which leads us to talk about Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Basically she was born to have this role. Duvall brings the perfect blend of goofiness and even dignity to the role. When on screen is very hard not to take away your eyes from her. One of the highlights of the film is when she sings all by herself on a moonlit pier the silly ditty “He Needs Me” and the movie soars with a whimsical understated charm that is both memorable and wonderful.
The music score by the late Harry Nilsson is weaved in into the plot without appearing forced and although there are no obvious show stoppers there are a few clever melodies, most memorable the already mentioned “He Needs Me”, “Food, Food, Food” and the opening anthem “Sweethaven” in which a gloomy sarcasm must be noted.
Popeye is a mix bag of wacky elements that suffers from some uneven pacing but at times it is gloriously weird, visually spectacular and brimming with intelligence. I recommend it to those who enjoy unpredictable and unusual entertainment that’s not neatly package in a square box. To me that kind of packaging sometimes have the best surprises.
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.