My next film is going to come from one of my favourite directors of all time, Mr Robert Altman. Originally, directing TV shows, Altman made the switch to the big screen in the late 60s and started to achieve serious levels of fame from the 70s onwards, continuing all the way to his death in 2006. Famed for his ensemble pieces and humanistic dramadies, such MASH, The Long Goodbye and Nashville, he was not afraid to try things that may not bring monetary or critical success; with no project more left field or maligned as the film I’ll be reviewing today.
Originally, not even his project, and with different main stars already signed on (Dustin Hoffman and Gilda Radner, which would have changed the product considerably from what we ended up with), 1980’s Popeye went through a slew of possible names to direct before Altman stepped up to the plate and turned it into one of the most interesting film projects of my lifetime. An ensemble musical (of all things) based around a cartoon character from the 20s and 30s who, in the 80s, was not exactly on the cusp of public consciousness; which makes it even more risky that the film used a LOT of aspects from the newspaper strip (there was an entire litany of characters living in Popeye’s world prior to the King Features animated shorts; hell, Popeye himself wasn’t even introduced into the world until several years after first publication). Starring then TV funny man Robin Williams, not exactly known for a singing voice, in his first major big screen role, alongside Shelly Duvall, Paul Dooley, Ray Walston and Paul Smith, the film divided critics and audiences alike. Even though it is thought of as a flop, it eventually more than doubled its somewhat meagre production costs, making it at least a financial success.
And, because Popeye is quite a different film, I will try quite a different review. I hope it work.
Popeye’s a sailing man
Who sails into Sweethaven-
The town loves a sing-song
Is that really so wrong?
Of the songs, I am a fan.
Now, Popeye don’t know his dad
And that makes him really sad
But he yam what he yam
And that’s all that he yam
Just as Bluto’s a bullying cad
Well, the town it is kind of poor
But they still pay tax to The Commodore
His Tax Collector is so rude
He takes more tax from their food
He’d even tax you for using the door
Now, Olive, she loves Bluto
But that’ll change soon, you know
Popeye soon proves his stuffs
By beating up some toughs
But Bluto just loves the dough
Popeye and Olive, ya see
Find a cute wee babe, SweaPea
Who predicts the future,
If that skill does suit ya
And gambles with him does Whimpy
To make the film more sappy
Swea’Pea becomes kidnappee
By Bluto, that eyesore
Ordered by the Commodore
Who’s Popeye’s dad, Poopdeck Pappy
Pappy starts off real mean
Cause Popeye won’t eat his green
They all end up in a cave
With an Olive to save
About who Popeye is still keen
Bluto drags Popeye down
With the object of making him drown
But Popeye fights to the finich
Because he eats his spinach
And makes that bully look like a clown
Popeye then teams with his dad
To get rid of Bluto, that big cad
The reunion is heartfelt
Pappy’s heart Swea’Pea does melt
The whole movie makes me glad
Merging characters from the Popeye’s better known later run of the cartoon, with those found in its earlier run as a newspaper strip works well, as it actually fleshes out the world beyond just Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto. The whole movie plays as a combination of live action cartoon and crazy acrobatic circus act, stuffed with so many turns, tumbles and vaudvillean style sight gags that the film, were it playing off with an obvious nod and wink, could be written off as a two hour long WSD. However, from minute one, it’s all as real as can be – sure, it’s a cartoon to us, but it is real to them.
Honestly, I have no idea why this film is maligned so – sure, it’s not the most intense plot ever, but then again: it’s Popeye, and pretty much every Popeye story was “Bluto takes Olive, Popeye punches a bunch of stuff til he gets her back.” The performances were fun and well cast – I can’t imagine anyone else to cast as a live action Popeye but Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall IS Olive Oyl and every other role is just perfectly cast; the songs for the most part were memorable (especially I Yam What I Yam and He Needs Me); and the film looks darn good, both as a film and the physical parts of it (sets, costumes, etc). As stated on a review somewhere, this is the kind of movie Tim Burton makes, and it came while he was still an animation monkey, long before anyone thought about giving him movies of his own – the town of Sweethaven looks like it’s just an seaside extension of Sleepy Hollow.