Written by Jules Feiffer, Songs by Harry Nilsson
Directed by Robert Altman
The making of Popeye began with a bidding war for the film rights to the Broadway stage adaptation of Little Orphan Annie. When producer Robert Evans found out Paramount had lost the bid to Columbia Pictures, he held an executive meeting about what comic properties they owned that could replace Annie. One person chimed in “Popeye,” and so it was decided they would make a movie musical based on the spinach-eating sailor man. The original concept was to cast Dustin Hoffman as Popeye and Lily Tomlin as Olive Oyl, but that fell through. At one point, even Gilda Radner was considered for Olive. However, when things finally settled and production began, we ended up with a picture that Paramount wasn’t too happy with, but that has become a cult classic.
Popeye (Robin Williams) arrives in the coastal town of Sweethaven on a mission to find his long lost father. He boards at the home of the Oyl family, where he meets Olive (Shelly Duvall). Olive is about to become engaged to local bully Captain Bluto (Paul L. Smith). Bluto runs the town for the mysterious and rarely seen Commodore (Ray Walston). Popeye prefers the path of pacifism, avoiding physical confrontation, and trying to connect with the townsfolk who seem to disregard him. He runs into Olive one night as she is attempting to run away from her engagement, and the two discover an abandoned baby named Swee’Pea. This creates a bond between that grows despite their ongoing conflicts. Bluto becomes angrier and angrier when he sees the two of them together and vows to find some way to get his revenge.
Popeye the film was not based on the cartoons rather the comic strip by E.C. Segar, which is where the character originated. The comic strip had a vast supporting cast beyond the five primary roles of the cartoon. Director Altman fills out Sweethaven with these strange and silly faces. There is Wimpy, of course, but also his nemesis Geezil. Rough House the local cook is present, the entire Oyl family (Cole, Nana, & Castor), the clumsy Harold Hamgravy, local boxer Oxblood Oxheart, and many more. Unsuspecting audiences were naturally overwhelmed with the sprawling cast and director Altman’s penchant for layer conversations and dialogue.
I personally love this film. I think its unusual nature fits the character of Popeye so well, and I am a fan of the E.C. Segar comic strips. As strange as its presentation is, the movie is actually very standard for superhero origin stories. We do not get Popeye fully formed at the start of the film, but instead, we see him meet the people that will shape him, and it’s not until the third act that he eats spinach and becomes superhumanly strong. With Superman the Movie coming out two years prior, you could already see similar films beginning to follow the same structure. If you were a longtime fan of Popeye, then you picked up on all the easter eggs and trivia, but if you were new to the character, you wouldn’t be lost understanding who he was.
The songs by Harry Nilsson are good, but they are not all fantastic. I think Shelly Duvall has the best numbers with “He Needs Me” and “He’s Large.” I do enjoy Robin Williams singing “I Yam What I Yam,” too. However, many songs feel unfinished, the concept of a song with some lyrics that don’t really have a strong structure. There is no mistaking; these are Nilsson compositions with their unique arrangements and Tin Pan alley style. I can’t imagine too many people singing along, though, and I think with a little more time, they could have become great pieces.
Ultimately, this more a Robert Altman movie than it is a Popeye picture. The aesthetics and directorial choices are more in line with his personal preferences for filmmaking than designed around what best suits the character. This caused many audiences to feel alienated and led to the film’s box office bomb status. I am a big fan of Altman’s work, so I enjoy the hell out of Popeye. He is definitely trying to make something a little more appealing to mainstream audiences, and that’s what makes it such an interesting picture. There were criticisms at the time that the movie was too dull, but I found it zooming by when I sat down for this rewatch. I don’t think it’s a picture that small children will get much out of, but it would definitely appeal to someone looking for a light comedy musical that is clever and not reliant on pure slapstick.