Reading a detailed book about the troubled production of Robert Altman’s Popeye might be more entertaining than watching the movie. All the ingredients are there, but the result is an alternately overcooked and undercooked stew with no dominant flavor — you taste everything and you taste nothing.

Jules Feiffer’s script has been said to match the ramshackle seaside tone of the original E.C. Segar comic strip, titled Thimble Theatre until Popeye showed up ten years into its run and took over. The movie, though, seems inspired more by the Fleischer Brothers cartoons of the ’30s; there’s a lot of slapstick and cartoon effects. It’s also abominably cluttered and headache-inducing. Altman, famous for his ensemble casts and overlapping plots, may have thought he could work the same magic in the story’s setting of Sweethaven. But, despite the surplus of characters, there are really only two stars, Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl; most everyone else is just noisy wallpaper. And there’s really just one plot, and a meandering, unfocused one at that.

Popeye comes to Sweethaven in search of his long-lost pappy. He meets Olive, who won’t give him the time of day until someone drops a baby, Swee’pea, in their laps, at which point the script seems to oblige them to decide to fall in love; we certainly don’t feel it. Olive is given one beautiful number, “He Needs Me,” and while the lyrics (by Harry Nilsson) aren’t anything great, Duvall turns it into a starlight bliss-out. Duvall is immaculately cast; everyone is, really. Of the large cast, the two actors (besides Duvall) who really nail the comic-strip spirit are Donald Moffat as Sweethaven’s monomaniacal tax collector and a young Bill Irwin, in his first film, as Ham Gravy, who contorts amusingly. The cast isn’t the problem; even Robin Williams, who spent years being self-deprecating about Popeye, plays the role with an antic side-of-the-mouth wit.

The problem is that nothing builds to anything; things just keep happening. This was Altman’s first stab at a mainstream movie since his breakthrough a decade earlier with M*A*S*H; he had spent the intervening ten years working on his own stubborn terms, and sometimes it worked (Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye) and sometimes it didn’t (pretty much everything else during the ’70s). So you’ve got Altman the toking iconoclast at the wheel of a $20 million kiddie musical financed by two studios and produced by Robert Evans. It could’ve been a masterpiece or it could’ve been a balls-out disaster — either way would’ve been interesting, but it’s neither, really. It has moments, mostly actors’ moments. But aside from the cosmetic attribute of a community of people skittering in and out of frame, it doesn’t feel like an Altman film. He resists the conventional narrative beats but isn’t free to put anything in their place.

I harbor a small degree of nostalgic affection for Popeye. I first saw it when I was ten and a fan of the cartoons (and of Robin Williams — Mork and Mindy was one of my favorite shows back then). I still have the soundtrack on vinyl somewhere around here, but other than “He Needs Me” — so good Paul Thomas Anderson stole it for Punch-Drunk Love — I wish the songs still held any charm for me. They range from undistinguished to downright abrasive. Revisiting the film thirty years later doesn’t do it any favors; a lot of it is klutzier than you may remember it being, and it leads to a wretched climax involving the fakest-looking octopus since Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.

Whose movie is this, really? It reads like more of a Robert Evans film than a Robert Altman film. The strain of the budget and the responsibility of delivering a big Christmastime blockbuster show in almost every scene. The movie seldom breathes — it’s hectic and irritating, except when Altman is allowed to hold his camera on Shelley Duvall (who’d worked with him five times before) and let her do her Shelley Duvall thing. The film’s Popeye hates spinach, which may be Feiffer’s nod to the Segar strips, where Popeye seldom if ever ate the stuff (that was more a trademark of the cartoons). But in the movie, coming after fifty years of Popeye gulping down spinach in the toons, it comes across as confusing and needlessly revisionist. Was this made for E.C. Segar scholars or for kids?

Popeye came out around the same time as Flash Gordon, and the two films share considerable similarities — both based on classic comic strips previously adapted into other media; both scored by pop musicians; both lavishly art-directed — but in the important ways they couldn’t be more different. Both show excess achievable only with serious money, but Flash Gordon winks at its roots and itself and has fun, while Popeye seems to fight itself to the finish until the money runs out and it peters out to that sad, sad octopus climax. More than anything, Popeye seems to want to be more and less than what it is — at any rate, anything other than what it is. It may be of interest to Altman acolytes who kill themselves trying to make it fit thematically and logically into his portfolio, but at this point who else would be interested?

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, comic-book, kids, musical

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