Popeye (1980)

Director: Robert Altman

Stars: Robin Williams, Shelly Duvall, Paul Smith, Paul Dooley

Release Company: Paramount

MPAA Rating: PG

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Altman: Popeye


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Much maligned when it was released in 1980, Robert Altman’s Popeye has had a much longer shelf life than many of the forgotten critics who slammed it. The improvisational and experimental Altman simply refuses to follow expectations—he’s not planning to mimic M*A*S*H, Nashville, or McCabe & Mrs. Miller here even though similar stylistic elements can also be found in Popeye. Altman sets out to re-create a human version of the long running Fleischer cartoon characters, and he succeeds.

Not only do the characters match the appearance of their cartoon counterparts through some good work by the makeup and wardrobe departments, but the spirit behind the film matches the original Popeye cartoons. Many who hated Altman’s movie probably didn't care for the Popeye cartoons either.

The casting works magnificently. Robin Williams squints and mutters his way through his Popeye character perfectly, and Shelly Duvall was born to play "Olives" (though she may not take that as a compliment). Not only does Duvall look like the lanky and unfashionably dressed Olive Oyl in Fleischer's cartoons, but she masters Olive's awkward bumbling moves as she extends her neck and stumbles through the story. And it's hard to imagine a more perfect baby actor than the one that Altman uses for Swee'pea--the kid actually appears to be in synch with whatever lunacy surrounds him.

Paul Dooley performs appropriately as the hamburger obsessed Wimpy, and even gets his own silly song: "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." There's a number of goofy songs that got lambasted for being really, really weak. In a sense the critics are correct about the songs being lame, but Altman created this film in the spirit of the original Popeye cartoon. It would be out of character for the film to incorporate really professional sounding songs. You have heard the "Popeye, the Sailor Man" theme song, haven’t you?

He's Popeye the Sailor Man. He's Popeye the Sailor Man! He's strong to the finich 'cause he eats his spinach, He's Popeye the sailor man!
Altman sets his cartoon world on the island of Malta with an appropriately ramshackle set that looks like it belongs in the Fleischer universe. Opening with a black and white Popeye cartoon cameo before switching to the colorful banks of the Mediterranean with a simple, repetitive song about Sweethaven ("O Sweethaven, God must love us ..."), Altman prepares us for his cartoon world with visuals of the appropriately off-kilter set and of people doing some slapstick. (I like the opening take with the unnamed character who keeps chasing and kicking his hat.) As in any of Altman's films, be sure to take note of all the background characters and listen in on the conversations—each is actively creating his/her own reality and doing something in every scene.

In the beginning Popeye rows his way to shore--a stranger to the town in search of his pappy. After everyone else has slammed their doors and removed the "For Rent" signs, the bulgy armed sailorman ends up at the wacky Oyl residence where Olive is complaining her ugly hat to her mother. Once again Olive is engaged to the inarticulate Bluto (Paul Smith), appropriately large and blustery and obsessed with wealth and Olive. Inevitably, Bluto and Popeye must compete over the town "beauty" and duke it out.

This film doesn't need an elaborate plot. Altman understands this and creates the cartoon environment to allow the memorable characters come to life, perform some slapstick, and throw in subtle humor. I especially enjoy some of Popeye's mumblings, like the time he and the Oyl family seek Swee’pea in a shack of "ill repuke" that hosts mechanical horse races and ladies of the evening: "Oh no, ya don'ts wanna go in there, ya could catch one a dem venerable diseases!" Another detail that continues to make me laugh occurs after the climatic clash with Bluto with Popeye's arch rival swimming away in different clothing (I don't want to give away the cartoonish sight gag totally).

The bit with the spinach is also clever since everyone knows that Popeye gets his strength from eating the leafy green vegetable. Although that well known tidbit isn't lost, it's a great twist to learn that Popeye actually hates spinach and used to puke it up as a baby even when his pappy had gone out to steal it during the Great Depression.

I'm with Popeye on the canned spinach. I'd have a hard time eating this yucky green stuff myself, but understand that people have different tastes. The same applies to Altman’s movie; the film was widely panned by the critics in 1980 and bombed at the box office. But don't fault Altman for the film's failure since the fiercely independent director remains true to the spirit of the original cartoon. I suspect that the many people who don't care for Altman's Popeye, also don't care for the original black and white cartoons that many of us grew up on. I’m not especially fond of the original Popeye cartoons either and certain facets never made sense to me when I was a young tyke (why the hell are Popeye and Bluto fighting over Olive, anyway?). But given this source material, Altman's cartoon to human transformation simply works as well as possible.

For that reason it ranks as one of the most under-rated films in the past twenty five years, or at least qualifies as a guilty pleasure on my part. Popeye comes across as cheesy and ridiculous as the animated world of the Fleischer brothers, and it's a lot of fun for people that grew up with those cartoons.

 

 


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