Popeye [40th Anniversary Edition]
Dec 24, 2020
Although it didn’t do that poorly at the box office, Popeye is primarily remembered as a disastrous flop. To be fair, it’s pretty terrible – but, at least it’s an immensely interesting sort of terrible.
After Columbia won an intense bidding war for the film rights to the hit stage musical Annie (based on the long-running comic Little Orphan Annie), Paramount and Disney teamed up to stick it to their rival with their own musical adaptation of a comic strip. For some reason they sought out Robert Altman, known for pulling naturalistic performances from his actors, to helm this live-action cartoon. Much wiser hiring choices were made in the casting, which enlisted Robin Williams as the super-strong sailor, a role that was supposed to elevate him from television to movie stardom.
The movie follows Popeye as he’s washed ashore in the rustic fishing village of Sweet Haven. He books a room at the boarding house owned by the Oyl family, whose daughter Olive (Shelley Duvall) is engaged to the local enforcer, Bluto (Paul Smith). While Popeye searches for the father who abandoned him at birth, he and Olive stumble across their own discarded bundle of joy, whom they name Swee’Pea, and soon realize possesses psychic powers.
Popeye does a few things really, really well. The casting is pretty superb, with each character resembling their comic strip persona to a tee – it’s hard to imagine they’d have found a more convincing Popeye or Olive Oyl. The costumes help this, too; Popeye’s massive, disfigured forearms aren’t disgusting or even distracting when realized in this real-world setting. The sets are perhaps the film’s best element, with an entire fishing village built in a cove in Malta (that you can still visit today, apparently.) The sets are incredibly detailed, and perfectly askew. (To keep things from looking too perfect, the carpenters had their measuring tape and power tools taken away when they went to build the set.)
Once you get past the production value and stellar casting, Popeye rapidly becomes pretty dismal. Even the biggest Altman fans will be among the first to admit the director was wrong for the project; his relaxed pacing does not work for what should be a high-pitched musical. At nearly two hours it feels at least 30 minutes too long, lingering on minor characters and meandering conversations. Worse than the pacing is the music, which feels equally lifeless. Although the songs are written by Harry Nilsson, they crawl – the opening musical number, sung by the inhabitants of the town, sounds just a few distorted guitars away from being a low-key doom metal track. The actors sing in their characters’ voices – including Popeye’s mumbling and Olive Oyl’s ear-piercing shrillness – so it’s hard to understand them. Tellingly enough, the director seems very dismissive of the songs in an interview recorded before his death, and included on this Blu-ray, making you wonder if he wanted to make a musical at all.
Paramount’s 40th Anniversary Blu-ray looks fantastic, with the crisp picture helping viewers better appreciate what is, admittedly, some magnificent production design. The audio, too, is of good quality, although you’ll still have a hard time understanding some of the garbled lyrics without turning on subtitles. The extra features are where it’s at, though, newly assembled for this disc from a combination of existent materials (with Williams and Altman) and newly-recorded interviews. These include a few informative mini-docs on the movie’s production, which are quite interesting. (Williams recounts a story about the crew running out of money to pay the puppeteers who would control the movie’s giant squid, leaving Duvall to wrestle with the limp tentacles by herself.) You also get a fun photo gallery of ‘80s celebrities walking the red carpet at the movie’s LA premiere, and an option to skip directly to each of the song’s musical numbers, if you wish to subject yourself to such a thing.