Flix Picks is a semi-regular feature that explores the depths of my Netflix queue and allows me the chance to catch up with some older films that I’ve not yet seen.
Robert Altman’s Popeye has had a divisive reputation to say the least. Upon release, many viewers disliked or hated it, but the film also had some ardent supporters, such as Roger Ebert, who championed it. Growing up, I let its low reputation sway me from seeking it out, although I always possessed a mild curiosity towards the film since I, like many others, had watched many of the old Popeye cartoons on TV. (I mean, come on, who doesn’t like Popeye?) Well, curiosity finally got the best of me all these years later, so I decided to check out the film and judge it myself. The main question I had going in: Was Popeye just as awful as most people would have me believe or did it contain some kind of crazy genius?
It’s an odd film for sure. I doubt that there has been anything quite like Popeye before or since. Not only is it a live-action version of a comic strip/cartoon, but it’s a slapstick comedy, a musical, and a Robert Altman film – all rolled into one. That’s kind of a funky recipe and one that certainly won’t be for everyone’s taste. I’d be hard-pressed to argue with anyone who said that the film never really gels or that it feels aimless a majority of the time. I could also see how viewers might not invest any emotion into the characters or story. There are plenty of problems the film suffers from and you could easily nitpick it to death. However, among the clunky elements, the film does contain its share of charms that elevate it into watchable territory.
The story begins as Popeye sails into the dilapidated island town of Sweethaven. He’s in search of his father who abandoned him at an early age. As Popeye explores the town, he encounters many colorful citizens and eventually rents a room in the Oyl household where he meets Olive, his future love, played by Shelley Duvall. She’s engaged to marry Bluto, a rough-and-tumble brute who essentially runs Sweethaven and is seemingly feared by everyone. From there, the plot ambles along from one event to the next and Popeye’s search for his father is more-or-less put on the back-burner as he becomes more involved with the goings-on of the town.
Before I get too deep into the review, I’ll address the musical aspect of the film since that typically seems to make or break people’s experience. While I’m not the world’s biggest fan of musicals, I’ll admit that I enjoyed a majority of the songs in Popeye. The music was written by Harry Nilsson, famous for songs like Everybody’s Talkin’ and Coconut, among others. He brings a simplicity and endearing spirit to the songs which can be really catchy at times. Some may complain that the performers aren’t professional singers, but I think that’s kind of missing the point. Would you really want these songs belted out by trained musicians? To me, that would feel completely false to the offbeat tone of the film. Clearly, the goal here is quaint as opposed to polished. As a result, I’ve had some songs stuck in my head the past couple weeks, even re-watching some clips of them on YouTube. In fact, I’d say if you were considering whether to watch the movie, check out a couple of the tunes online first. On the downside, I’ll admit that one disadvantage of the songs is that they help bloat the movie up to nearly two hours when it really only needed to be ninety minutes.
Another aspect of the film that stuck with me were the performances, which for the most part were great. Robin Williams, in his first feature, brings Popeye to life. As expected, he delivers plenty of energy to the role and goes for broke on the exaggerated mannerisms and speech. Of course, the special makeup required for Popeye’s arms add a certain legitimacy (if that’s the right word) to the role, but it’s really on Williams to carry the film and in that regard, I think he succeeds. One particular aspect I enjoyed from Williams’ performance was the choice (probably mandatory based on how the character speaks) to ADR a majority of his lines. Although somewhat distracting at times, I feel like the ADR lines add to the performance overall. It’s great in instances where Popeye mutters comments to himself and it reminded me of the style used in the Fleischer cartoons. Call it a happy accident if you will, but I enjoyed it.
As for Shelley Duvall, she’s kind of born for the role of Olive. I really can’t imagine anyone else playing that part and, believe me, I’ve tried. Aside from looking the part, she embodies all the mood swings Olive constantly shifts through, from sweet to frantic. Even though the character herself can become grating at times, I think Duvall plays Olive as she should – as cartoonish as possible. The only weak link for me was Frank L. Smith as Bluto, although that isn’t necessarily his fault. The filmmakers chose to portray Bluto as more of an angry oaf than any kind of dynamic character. Most of the time he just sits there with a mean look on his face – not exactly the greatest antagonist. The rest of the cast was certainly up for the challenge and created suitably unusual characters to inhabit the world of the film.
Speaking of the world the film creates, the filmmakers really committed to the cartoonish style, starting with the impressive Sweethaven set. The entire town was constructed specifically for the film and it shows. Every building is so deliberately run-down and dirty that you could picture a strong gust of wind swaying them back and forth. The citizens of Sweethaven are also suitably dingy as they go about their daily routines. Many character’s days seem to be filled with moments of slapstick humor, whether attempting to balance on an unsteady ladder, chasing down a loose hat, or falling through a broken bridge. When they’re not used for physical gags, the characters argue comically with each other in a nice use of Altman’s usual over-lapping dialog.
Unfortunately, the charming aspects of the film never add up to a satisfying whole. I think the script acts as the main problem. Although sometimes the unfocused plotlines to Altman’s films count as a strength, this is one instance when a more straightforward narrative would have been in order. The story seems so aimless that there’s no real narrative momentum or stakes built. Throughout the film, I never really cared about Popeye’s search for his father. By the time the film arrives at material with his Pappy, I really just wasn’t that interested. Also, the climatic showdown between Popeye and Bluto meant nothing. Also adding to the problems is Altman’s typical style of filmmaking, which doesn’t always suit the material. Critic Vincent Canby put it well when he said, “Too often the movie observes the crazy slapstick behavior of its characters as if it were watching them through a telescope. It’s interested but detached.” While some scenes contain a good deal of energy, too often the film is missing the kinetic liveliness it needs, especially given the material. There’s a noble amount of effort on display, but ultimately it’s in service of a messy, unfocused film.
While Popeye may be a mixed-bag, I would still recommend it for those who are on the fence about it. It’s such an oddity of the time that it deserves some more attention and re-evaluating. For every clunky choice, there’s some charm to make up for it. In the same way Popeye says “I am what I am” this film truly deserves the popular Film Junk phrase, “It is what it is.”
As always, the movie is currently available on Netflix Streaming, so catch it there while you can and please leave your comments below.