While they may be a dime a dozen nowadays, there was a time when comic book/strips/cartoon adaptations were far from the norm in Hollywood. Sure, you’d get a serial or a cheap little B-feature for the kids, but in terms of big budget productions, not a chance. Then, with the success of Superman in 1978, and the birth of the blockbuster around that time, something began to change, and steadily, properties were getting adapted. The 80s and 90s, in particular, became awash with nostalgia properties being converted into summer and Christmas movies.
In 1980, Paramount wunderkind Robert Evans turned E.C. Segar’s iconic sailor man into a feature film, following a lost battle over the movie rights to Annie. Veteran cartoonist Jules Feiffer was hired to write the screenplay, acclaimed musician Harry Nilsson to score and write songs, and Hollywood maverick Robert Altman (Nashville, MASH) was put into the director’s chair (though John Schlesinger had been previously pursued). The results were repeated conflicts between the two Bobs, budget overruns and then opening to poor reviews and a middling box office when compared to its peers and Evans’ past successes (though in terms of the raw numbers, Popeye wasn’t a bomb).
Yet, after all this time, was Popeye really a disaster? A complete artistic misfire with a miscast director better at doing satirical dramas and sprawling tales than a family musical? Having first seen the film years ago, I was inclined to agree. I just didn’t get it. The slapstick was wonky, the songs kind of messy and a bit tuneless, and the plot structure felt like a bunch of ideas and shorts thrown together by an inexperienced screenwriter. I liked the sets and thought the cast was perfect, but that was about it.
Well, several years have passed: I refined and developed my palette further, as well as my analytical skills. I watched considerably more Robert Altman films (including the sublime Short Cuts, which ties with Nashville for my favourite Altman film), as well as other oddball adaptations and fantasy films. How did all this affect my second viewing? Was I still right about it being a huge misfire, or am I siding with the growing online cult that argues Popeye‘s merits (which even includes Paul Thomas Anderson and Kevin Smith among its ranks)?
What definitely stuck from before were two things: first, I still think the productions values are great. Sweethaven Village was built in Malta, where it remains a big tourist attraction, and the money shows, bringing this rickety seaside town to life with mismatched houses and roads right out of a comic strip or cartoon. We run the gammit from rickety ships, boxing rings, and a restaurant, to gambling dens and a sinister cove with skeletons, and it looks good, not to mention, actually lived in. It feels aged and a little dirty, much like somewhere where people would actually be, adding a greater touch of believability.
The casting is spot on: the late great Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall were born to play Popeye and Olive, resembling them physically as well as getting their mannerisms and voices down to a T. The two share a genuine chemistry and timing with each other. The contributions of the others, a who’s who of character actors, cannot be understated: Paul L. Smith gives the needed sneering and growling as Bluto, Paul Dooley is alternately charming yet slimy as Wimpy, and Ray Walston brings the right level of saltiness to Pappy.
The script is certainly an odd duck, but not as disjointed or unruly as I, and many others, once declared it. The stories, beginning with Popeye’s arrival in Sweethaven, which then segues into the fortunes of the Oyl family and their dominance by the vicious Bluto, and then the arrival of Swee’Pea, actually do flow into one another and are linked by Popeye’s journey to find his father. While perhaps not explored as much as it should’ve been, I like the thread about family running through the narrative. It adds a greater sense of heart to what could’ve been a joke-a-minute cashgrab.
Where my newfound appreciation started to wain, however, was with the music: The songs are very hit and miss, being lyrically simple but also sung and performed at a surprisingly slow pace by the standards of film musicals. The result is just… odd, like somewhere between intentional and sloppy. I do like the orchestrated version of the spinach theme though.
The pacing and style of humour is very much the deal breaker for most who venture here: Altman films are usually slow burners, allowing one to enjoy the atmosphere and characters as he usually has quite a few. This adds a greater realism to his work, as combined with the overlapping dialogue and preference for diegetic sound and music, makes them feel like actual conversations and scenes between people. Fine for adult dramedys, but in a children’s production, that’s a much riskier tactic as it slows things down, and this extends to the humour: The film is surprisingly light on slapstick, instead relying a lot more on situational or verbal humour, like Popeye’s various quips. What slapstick there is used more like action setpieces: it’s there for a narrative reason, usually feels big and lasts a fair while. A fight in the restaurant, a boxing match and then the final showdown in the cove are where we get into what one would expect from a Popeye tale, and like everything else, it’s very deliberately paced, almost in direct contrast to the famous cartoons.
But somehow… it just works. It’s like no other family film, or indeed Disney project period, that I can think of. It’s unmistakably an Altman production through and through, in all it’s eccentricities, yet still has enough oddball spirit to feel like a Popeye movie. Your tolerance may well vary, depending on your sensibiltiies when it comes to not just Popeye, but indeed these types of films. For me, I found a strange charm in all of it, even if the film is very much a product of its era and the strange blend of minds that made it. If you’re someone who criticizes DC or Marvel films for feeling too samey among comic films, give this one a shot.