Popeye (1980)

It’s strange the things we readily accept as children. A sailor with bloated forearms who becomes super-strong after eating a canned vegetable? This made sense to us? Yet, there we were, thinking nothing of it. Talking animals are one thing, but this is something else again, I feel. Seeing it depicted in live action really brought this home and sort of made me wonder what in the hell was going on in the head of E.C. Segar, creator of Popeye.

I knew this film for two reasons: One, Leonard Maltin listed it as a bomb, and I knew it as savaged and derided as a film. Two, it played in theatres when my father was still managing them meaning I managed to see the original theatrical poster almost every day of my life, hanging in a hall near our television. There was Robin Williams with disturbingly large forearms and a squinky eye, Swee’Pea and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. I didn’t think a thing of it, except, “Ooh! A movie about Popeye that isn’t animated!” I avoided it because of the reviews (I did tend to disagree with Leonard Maltin pretty firmly on things he called bad even then, but if I knew nothing of it and it wasn’t intriguing enough, I’d believe him, I suppose). When it showed up cheap and I mentioned it to my father–he was interested in it. I had no idea that in fact some people DID like it and think well of it–and of course, by now I knew who Robert Altman was, and, more importantly (to me, at least) who Harry Nilsson was. I had grown up watching The Point many, many times (making it one of the earlier films to enter my DVD collection, as all old favourites did if they could) and loving the songs, but only in more recent years did I assemble the previously separate facts of songs and songwriter.

So, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finally sat down to watch it. A close adaptation of the strip or cartoon? A strange amalgamation of its logic and reality? Some sort of “normal” comedy with familiar characters? Altman in fact settled on something that physically, visually and plot-wise apparently most strongly resembles Segar’s original comic strip (including what some thought was an inaccurate representation of Popeye’s distaste for spinach–in fact, part of the original character design, though something I accepted as part of the feeling of a “prequel” sort of story, myself) but with movement, motion and gags that strongly resemble the mood, spirit and tone of Fleischer cartoons (which, of course, the original animated Popeye was)—straight up slapstick gags, all of it bringing back to mind the things I used to see when Popeye cartoons would wander onto my television screen from time to time between movies or on cartoon-based programs. Robin Williams mutters in the exact same way as Popeye, often revealing a little greater wit and intelligence than he often showed outwardly–the merest bump sending him into a flurry of defensive fists, a quality that also makes itself present in the film. Shelley Duvall essentially IS Olive Oyl, her warbly “oh, Popeye!”s sounding all-too-familar when our hero tangles with “the dirtiest fighter alive,” Oxblood Oxheart. Paul Dooley (who I know I’ve seen, but can’t say where from) is hamburger-loving Wimpy, twiddling his expectant fingers on the non-burger holding hand just as I recall, waddling about in a goofy, under-sized suit and tiny bowler in a way thoroughly reminiscent of the cartoon version, performing under-handed and self-serving tricks through cowardice in exactly the same way. Paul L. Smith isn’t quite the towering, ridiculously ripped Bluto that we know–and, er, love?–but manages to pretty fully capture the character as best can be done with a real person, constantly angry, steaming and mean (as he is wont to note in Nilsson’s song). Ray Walston (our favourite Martian, that is) is Popeye’s father Poopdeck Pappy, who I was unfamiliar with as a character and was almost convinced had been completely made up, but the film drove me to research Popeye and his cast and origins (finding the characters were all straight from Segar’s strip) and so I discovered he was indeed just like Popeye in appearance, but with a beard, and completely contrasting morality.

I recall at one point that Popeye cartoons used to irritate me, though I can’t say why. Probably overexposure; I just remember certain aspects (carried into nearly every ‘toon) seemed to wear thin and occasionally grate. Perhaps it was Olive Oyl’s idiocy, constantly forgetting what a rotten bastard Bluto was, or constantly angry at Popeye for stupid reasons, or maybe it was just one of those things where Popeye was what was showing at the wrong time and my mood was already sour. This movie, though, made me want to go back and re-watch some of those things, catch up on that ludicrous Fleischer humour style, and maybe even dig up some of Segar’s early work on “Thimble Theater”–the strip Popeye came from.

Worth noting–Dennis Franz appears as a tough in a bar in the film, and the set design is unbelievable. It’s like that insane cartoon logic of architecture brought to life–overly busy and messy, constantly seeming in danger of falling over or falling to pieces and strangely top-heavy. Yet, much like Williams lacking the overly pronounced chin (and thinning hair) sort of cemented him on a line between the cartoon and a real person, so the busy set design cemented itself between cartoon and reality as well, effectively marrying the two. A truly weird experience–I’ve known another film (specifically Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone) to try and replicate cartoon reality in live action reality, but never so completely, so thoroughly, so faithfully and so accurately. So what if Williams and Altman disowned it? I couldn’t care less–I enjoyed the damn thing. It was a couple of minutes too long, I’ll give you that, but not by too much, really.


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