Popeye (dir. Robert Altman, 1980)

Popeye (1980)

God knows I wish I loved Robert Altman’s ill-perceived adaptation of Popeye.  Hounded by most viewers, it does have a passionate cult fan base which declares it as pop masterpiece. I wish I could side with those few critics who sing its praises:

“[Altman] takes one of the most artificial and limiting of art forms — the comic strip — and raises it to the level of high comedy and high spirits.” Roger Ebert

“A thoroughly charming, immensely appealing mess of a movie, often high-spirited and witty, occasionally pretentious and flat, sometimes robustly funny and frequently unintelligible.” Vincent Canby

I was especially moved by critic Scott Weinberg’s wholehearted defense of the movie:

“Popeye is a gloriously weird, unremittingly off-kilter, quietly clever and altogether brilliant big-budget, art-flick, comedy, musical, period piece, character study, comic-book adaptation…curiosity piece. It’s pervasively and endearing strange, coated with staggeringly odd set designs and quirky character touches. It’s both respectful of Segar’s source material and willful enough to infuse some of the most goofily enjoyable music ever brought to the silver screen. Popeye brings comic-book characters to life in a way that CGI technology cannot.”

Like I said, wish I could agree. One of my friends showed me this production amidst a lengthy 1980s movie marathon and had this not been a group effort, I would have shut the thing off by the forty minute-mark. Spoilers will follow, so approach with caution if you’ve never seen (or in some cases, never been able to finish) the movie.

I’ll begin on a positive note: the film’s aesthetic is perfect in recreating the flatness and detail of a comic strip world. One touch I enjoy is that the colors do not sear the eye or pop; everything is mildly muted and the world looks thoroughly lived-in, fitting the Depression-era world being depicted. The costumes are glorious exaggerations of 1930s apparel. I quite enjoyed the sets too, which still stand to this day. The visuals were all faithful to the comic and cartoons without coming across as garish.

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The casting is perfect all across the board. Who else but Shelly Duvall could play such a convincing Olive Oyl? Though Robin WIlliams does not seem as perfect a match for the famous sailor as Duvall does Oyl, he gleans as much as possible from the material, turning in as great a performance as one possibly could when given this script. There is also a sweetness to the story that is rare in more modern Hollywood productions. A touch cheesy, yes, but there’s no hurt in some cheese. I crave the stuff.

But God forgive me, everything else is a mess and rarely a fun one either.

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The script is terrible and feels like a second draft rather than a finished work. I have no problem whatsoever with episodic feature films which wander from one point to the other. Some of my favorite movies, like Disney’s Pinocchio or Linklater’s Slacker, are episodic and pull that mode of storytelling off well. Popeye is the textbook example of how an episodic plot can go wrong when there are no strong characters, themes, or real focus to pull the thing together. The film switches gears constantly, giving the viewer chronic whiplash as the story goes from being a fish-out-of-water story to a romantic-comedy to a treasure hunt to God knows what else the screenwriters felt they had to shove in there. About the only constant in the story is Popeye’s search for his father and even that’s more of a footnote until the final chapter with the treasure hunt that comes out of nowhere. It can be tough to follow.

That the dialogue is unintelligible 60% of the time does not help; everyone talks over one another, Olive shrieks, Popeye mumbles, most everyone else squawks. I understand this use of sound is a trademark of Altman’s, but when it’s working against your telling the story, why utilize it?

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Even the way he visually tells the story is flawed. Early in the film, there’s a scene where Popeye delivers his back story and a group of antagonistic sailors behind him start laughing every other sentence, Popeye pausing every time they do. It took me a few moments before I realized they were supposed to be making fun of Popeye’s unique way of pronunciation. Altman never cuts to the ruffians and the way the shot is set up makes the laughing a bit unclear and disembodied.

The music is a nightmare both technically and from a narrative perspective; sometimes it’s even hard to catch a melody amidst the aimless warbling, that is if the obviously on-the-spot choreography doesn’t distract you first. Each number is bad in unique ways. “Blow Me Down” has a melody but is incomprehensible, making it an utter failure as a character-establishing song. “Everything is Food” drones on and on for far too long, overstaying its welcome. “He’s Large,” “Sailin’,” and “He Needs Me” prove that Shelly Duvall should be banned from attempting to sing. I’m still trying to discern the melody of “Kids.” The only tolerable numbers are “I’m Mean” and “It’s Not Easy Being Me,” due to having competent singers and mildly catchy melodies. Few of these songs even propel the story forward or reveal anything meaningful about the characters; it makes you wonder why this even needed to be a musical in the first place.

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Like I said, I wish I could bring myself to love this one or even like it. I appreciate the visuals, but when the narrative and storytelling are handled in such a terrible manner, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm, even as a fan of delightfully awful cinema.

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One thought on “Popeye (dir. Robert Altman, 1980)

  1. One of the actors stated that when the studio hired Robert Altman to direct, audiences had to have expected something entirely different from their expectations. He said it in a way that made it seems like hiring Altman was an entirely stupid idea. And it was.

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