Paramount Pictures/Walt Disney Productions
Directed by Robert Altman
Produced by Robert Evans
Written by Jules Feiffer
Based on the “Thimble Theater” comic strip created by E.C. Segar
Music by Harry Nilsson
Cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno
Edited by Tony Lombardo/John W. Holmes/David A. Simmons
POPEYE is kinda like the bastard child that nobody talks about or even acknowledges at family reunions. Whenever discussions about movies based on comic books or comic strips are mentioned nobody ever remembers POPEYE. Hell, people will remember really obscure films based on comic strips such as “Friday Foster” starring Pam Grier or “Brenda Starr” with Brooke Shields and Timothy Dalton. But I mention POPEYE and people give me a look of honest surprise, saying : “They made a movie out of POPEYE?” Which is a shame because POPEYE is really outstanding in a lot of ways.
It’s an origin story we’re given as Popeye (Robin Williams) comes to the remote seaport town of Sweethaven. searching for his long lost poppa, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston) who abandoned his orphink (that’s how Popeye pronounces ‘orphan’) son years ago. Popeye is regarded with hostile suspicion by the townspeople but finds lodging in the home of the Oyl family: family patriarch Cole Oyl (MacIntyre Dixon) his capable wife Nana Oyl (Roberta Maxwell) their well-meaning but slightly shifty son Castor Oyl (Donovan Scott) and their beloved daughter, the vain, prissy and impossibly skinny Olive Oyl (Shelly Duvall).
During the course of his search for his poppa, Popeye meets the other residents of Sweethaven: Olive’s ex-boyfriend Ham Gravy (Bill Irwin). The greengrocer George W. Geezil who is constantly at odds with and continually threatens to murder his best friend, professional moocher J. Wellington Wimpy (Paul Dooley). The Taxman (Donald Moffat), town drunk Bill Barnacle (Robert Fortier), the gambler Harry Hotcash (David McCharen), professional dirty fighter Oxblood Oxheart (Peter Bray) and His Mudder (Linda Hunt). And then there’s Bluto (Paul L. Smith) the hulking mass of muscle who runs the town and collects the taxes for the mysterious Commodore who no one can ever remember seeing.
Popeye and Olive don’t take to each other right away. He thinks she’s a dizzy dame and she thinks he’s too short. But their feelings for each other soon change when they find an abandoned baby Popeye names Swee’pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt) which Olive thinks is a stupid name but Popeye comes back with one of the movie’s best lines: “Well, what were you going to name him? Baby Oyl?” This doesn’t sit very well with Bluto who was supposed to be engaged to Olive. He beats the hell outta Popeye and taxes the Oyls into bankruptcy. But salvation comes from an unexpected source: Swee’pea, who can apparently predict the future by whistling to signify ‘yes’ when he’s asked a question. Bluto learns of the baby’s talent and hatches a plan to get Olive for himself and use Swee’pea to find The Commodore’s treasure, located somewhere on the treacherous Scab Island.
That’s not much of a plot but then again how much of a plot do you actually need? The real fun of watching the movie comes from the extraordinary sets and performances. An entire town was actually built on the island of Malta and it still exists today as a tourist attraction/theme park http://www.popeyemalta.com/ so the town of Sweethaven has a solidity that you don’t normally see in other movies of this type. Sweethaven doesn’t look like a movie set on screen. It looks like a real town.
Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall do such a great job of bringing Popeye and Olive Oyl to life it’s scary. Shelly Duvall in particular does an amazing job of giving Olive an incredibly unique gangly body language. Robin Williams has Popeye’s well known mutterspeak and hilariously mangled mispronunciations down so well that if you decide to watch this I’d advise you to turn up your TV’s volume a couple of notches higher than usual or turn on the closed captioning or you’ll miss half of Popeye’s best lines. But it’s the little things in this movie I find amusing. Such as Cole Oyl’s constantly insisting that everybody owes him an apology. Or the way Olive holds her head and the look on her face when she answers other characters. Or the character of Roughhouse who would seem to be a pretty tough guy in his own right as there’s a couple of scenes where Bluto intimidates the citizens of Sweethaven but actually goes around Roughhouse or ignores him totally. And Ray Walston is always a joy in anything he does. Look closely at the gang of toughs Popeye has a brawl with in Roughhouse’s Café and you’ll see one of ‘em is Dennis Franz.
And for somebody like me who really only knows Popeye from the cartoons I was amazed at how many supporting characters there actually are in his universe. I’m only familiar with Popeye, Olive, Bluto, Swee’pea and the Jeep and until I saw this movie and did a little research I had no idea all of those other characters existed. And they are some characters indeed. POPEYE benefits from some of Robert Altman’s signature directorial traits such as overlapping dialog and there’s always something going on in the background. The characters aren’t just standing around to give the scene window dressing. A lot of times they’re not even reacting to what the main characters are doing. They’re going about their own business, doing something totally unrelated to what the main characters are doing. In other words, living their own lives.
The musical numbers are written by Harry Nilsson and they’re not done like your traditional musical numbers where everybody stops to sing. They’re interwoven with the dialog and don’t so much start and stop as just fade in and fade out. They’re not memorable songs by any means but they’re cute and charming enough. I’m particularly fond of the “Sweethaven Anthem” and “Everything Is Food”. Ray Walston has a catchy number called: “It’s Not Easy Being Me” But “I Am What I Am” and “I’m Mean” end abruptly just when they’re starting to get cooking. And the ending is something of a letdown because the whole movie has been building up to a massive knockdown slugfest between Popeye and Bluto but it never happens. There’s a really silly swordfight before we get to the moment we’ve been waiting for: Popeye eating that can of spinach and walloping the piss outta Bluto. The resolution of the fight is over much too fast to be satisfying. But we do get to learn what Popeye really thinks about spinach and it’s the biggest laugh in the movie.
So should you see POPEYE? Sure. It’s so good spirited in its desire to entertain that only a rock hearted person could dislike it. The best word I can come up with for this movie is ‘charming’. It’s a nice little movie for the whole family to watch together. POPEYE is a great Saturday or Sunday afternoon fun movie. Enjoy.