In the documentary film “A Decade Under the Influence,” Robert Altman remarks, “I’m not interested in stories.” Presumably, he meant he is more interested in characters and their relationships than in plot or story line. This is evident in all his films, giving critics headaches, and “Popeye” is no exception.
Altman (“MASH,” “Nashville,” “Gosford Park”) has been writing, directing, and producing movies for as long as anyone in the business, over fifty years, and of all the things he’s made, none has received as poor a critical reception as his 1980 musical adaption of the cartoon series “Popeye.” The film has been called jumbled and misguided, rambling, erratic, bizarre, a total mess, with weird and unlistenable songs, freakish characters, and eccentric locations. Robin Williams, in his first big-screen starring role, was even criticized for being unintelligible as Popeye.
For the record and as an admittedly lone voice in the wilderness, I’d like to advance the opposing point of view. I think the film is brilliant, the best reworking of cartoon subject matter for a live-action movie ever made, and I count in that category such things as the live-action Superman, Batman, X-Men, and Flintstone films. In fact, to make sure there’s no misunderstanding here, I’m going so far as to assign the picture an 8/10 rating for its Film Value, an excellent and warmly recommended movie.
Based on the cartoon characters created by E.C. Segar and the old Max Fleischer animations, with a screenplay by Jules Feiffer and music and lyrics by Harry Nilsson, “Popeye” is a delight from beginning to end. This is not to say the movie isn’t a bit different (what Altman film isn’t a little unusual?), but it is entertaining once you get used to it.
Any adaptation of the Popeye character must, of course, start with the actor playing Popeye, and in Robin Williams the filmmakers got it right. Williams is the perfect embodiment of the character, from the proper bounce and swagger to the squinty eye, bulging forearms, and pipe. If Williams appears at times difficult to understand, it’s because he’s doing such a good imitation of the original voice of Popeye (Jack Mercer, among others) in the early animated films. In any case, Williams gets it right, and it remains one of the actor’s best performances. Interestingly, the part was initially offered to Dustin Hoffman, who eventually backed out because of creative differences with the script.
The supporting cast are no less accomplished and embody the cartoon characters with consummate ease. Shelley Duvall seems born to play Olive Oyl (“I hate this hat; this is an ugly hat!”). The superb character actors Paul Dooley and Ray Walston play Wimpy (“I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”) and Poopdeck Pappy (“Haul ass, haul ass!”) respectively. Big Paul L. Smith plays Captain Bluto (“I’m mean!”); MacIntyre Dixon is Cole Oyl (“You owe me an apology!”); Richard Libertini is Mr. Geezil (“Hoopla, hoopla, pooey!”); Donald Moffat is the Taxman (“That’s ten cents question tax!”); Donavan Scott is Castor Oyl; Peter Bray is Oxblood Oxheart; Linda Hunt is Oxblood’s mother; and Wesley Ivan Hurt, Altman’s grandson, plays Swee’pea.
Among the others in the ensemble are the familiar characters in the world of Popeye: Ham Gravy, Bill Barnacle, Harry Hotcash, Scoop, Chizzelflint, Splatz, Slick, the Walfleur sisters, Mayor Stonefeller, Von Schnitzel, Pickelina, and the toughs: Spike, Slug, Butch, Mort, Gozo, and Bolo.
The settings, too, are a match for the old cartoons. Sweethaven was built on the coast of Malta to resemble a chintzy, rundown New England-style village, and with its rickety buildings, wacky catwalks, and meandering stairways it looks every inch the goofy backdrop for the ancient animations. Indeed, the sets are half the fun of the picture.
Then, there are the songs. This is the area that either makes or breaks the movie for most folks because they aren’t what you expect. Harry Nilsson’s tunes are not the zippy, up-tempo ditties you depend upon in a typical musical comedy. Well, this isn’t a typical musical comedy. Nilsson opts, instead, for mood pieces. The lyrics are funny enough, but the music is meant to parallel the characters and their actions. Take the opening tune, for instance, “The Sweethaven Anthem.” It’s practically a dirge because the people of Sweethaven are anything but sweet; they’re unfriendly and uninviting.
Among the other songs are “Blow Me Down,” sung by Popeye as he enters Sweethaven; “He’s Large,” sung by Olive on the eve of her engagement to Bluto; “I’m Mean,” sung by Bluto in reference to himself; “I Yam What I Yam,” sung by Popeye as a personal declaration; “He Needs Me,” Olive’s acknowledgement of Popeye; “Sailin,'” sung by Popeye and Olive to Swee’pea; “It’s Not Easy Being Me,” sung by Poopdeck Pappy after being tied up by Bluto; and the movie’s most famous (and non-Nilsson) song, “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,” written by Sam Lerner so long ago. I can only suggest that you listen to them and give them a chance. They grow on you.
Finally, I’ll remind you the plot is of little consequence, as Altman’s remark at the top of the article indicates, but for the curious it concerns Popeye’s arrival in Sweethaven, his search for his poppa, his courtship with Olive, the abduction of Swee’pea, and the villainy of Bluto. Yes, it’s episodic, based as it is on short subjects, after all, and the gags are often silly and filled with slapstick. Altman’s job was to convey the spirit of the old cartoons, not dish up some ultraslick Hollywood sitcom fodder. He gets the job done right.
On a trivia note, John Eastman writes in his book “Retakes,” 1989, that “Williams had to work himself up to the sailor-man’s supreme self-confidence. Hesitant and frightened at first, he walked out of (producer) Robert Evans’s office repeating to himself, ‘Yes, I can. Sure I can. I felt like the little actor that could.’ He watched old Popeye cartoons and worked on lowering his voice, comparing the effort to gargling with pebbles. The swollen forearms worn by Williams and Ray Walston (playing Poopdeck Pappy) were foam-rubber and latex sheaths, extremely uncomfortable and in constant need of ‘rehairing’ and touching up. Shelley Duvall was cast as Olive Oyl after Gilda Radner proved unavailable; her stiff, black ponytail required two hours of daily construction.” Thank you, John.
On the plus side, the picture is presented in a generous 2.17:1 anamorphic widescreen, with colors rich and natural, superb contrast in light and dark areas, and plenty of detail visible in the dimmer sections of the screen. On the debit side, there are a few noticeably shimmering lines and the faintest blurring of object outlines and features. Overall, the transfer is better than average and should displease no one.
While the sound is available in Dolby Surround, it has also been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1, where it enjoys a greater clarity and channel separation. In DD 5.1 the sonics are clean and robust. There is perhaps a tad too much brightness in the lower treble, giving it a good degree of presence, but the same region sounds a bit hard. Still, the sound is wonderfully dynamic and alive, and the ear adjusts to the rest. Any treble elevation does not extend too far down into the midrange, so voices are realistically rendered. What’s more, there is an excellent front-channel stereo spread and a moderate amount of rear-channel action. Don’t expect too much discrete surround, however, although there’s enough signal going to the back to excite the senses, perhaps even too much in a couple of songs. While the signal appears to be mainly monaural in the rear, there are also occasions when objects fly off to the left or right and are picked up by the back speakers, making them appear to zoom into the center left or right of the listening area, a most pleasing aural effect.
Amazingly, there are no extras on the disc whatsoever. No commentaries, documentaries, featurettes, photo galleries, games, puzzles, or cast biographies. Not so much as a theatrical trailer. And a paltry twelve scene selections. That’s unusual for a new DVD these days and makes me wonder about Paramount’s marketing strategy.
Despite the lack of bonus features, the new DVD transfer of “Popeye” is good enough in itself to warrant an unconditional recommendation. The characters are perfectly captured, the music and locations are charming, and the atmosphere of the old cartoons is flawless. Despite the ill will the movie has received in the press over the years, “Popeye” has a lot going for it and remains one of filmdom’s most overlooked gems.