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,
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
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
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!
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
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.