For some reason, I never watched Popeye the Sailor as a kid, though I always knew that it was outlandishly goofy and cartoonish. So going into Robert Altman’s live-action adaptation of it (simply named Popeye), I was expecting something right along those lines, and I wasn’t surprised one bit when it wound up being just that. What did surprise me, however, is how unexpectedly good the resulting film was. Judging by the mixed reviews and resulting fade into obscurity it was greeted with, I was expecting a mediocre, if occasionally enjoyable, piece of nostalgia bait. Instead, I got a joyous, utterly irresistible love letter to the original cartoon that actually had real care and effort put into it. Disney should really take note.
The biggest criticisms I hear of Popeye is that it’s “messy” and “wildly uneven” (actual quotes from the Rotten Tomatoes consensus), which are a bit exaggerated. In fact, for the most part, it actually stays pretty consistent when following the escapades of the titular character (smartly played by Robin Williams, in his first major role), whose lifeboat washes up at the bumbling town of Sweethaven while he’s trying to search for his missing father (or, as he puts it in his broken, mumbling English, “me pappy”). While there, he soon finds himself clashing with the oppressively overbearing taxman and ludicrously angry Captain Bluto, all while forming a relationship with the latter’s feisty soon-to-be-fiancé, Olive Oyl (a perfectly cast Shelley Duvall).
Both of these storylines conclude exactly how you’re expecting, but such matters are easily ignored when the film is so clever, so entertaining, and so utterly well-made. Sweethaven is reproduced with a charming, laborous authenticity not often present in these cartoon-based movies, and all its inhabitants are genuinely lovable cartoon characters, not some lazy screenwriter’s idea of what genuinely lovable cartoon characters should be like. As such, despite the obligatory goofy pratfalls popping up from time to time, the film is great fun for young children, yet also capable of being enjoyed by older audiences as well.
Let’s not forget the really fun soundtrack. Sure, its stagey to the point of being reminiscent of something off Broadway, but that was probably the point. After all, probably everything else had been done with Popeye at that point, so why not put him in a full-fledged musical? A few moments of cheese slip in here and there, but overall, most of the songwriting and arrangements are pretty enjoyable. Paul-Thomas Anderson must have been taking notes—the Duvall-sung “He Needs Me” later shot to fame in his acclaimed romantic comedy/thriller Punch-Drunk Love, and his career was never the same since.
Speaking of cheesiness, Popeye admittedly can’t help occasionally falling back on that in other respects. A climatic fight with a menacing rubber octopus shows the film’s age pretty badly, and moments like the “Everything is Food” scene are so hokey that it’s easy to see why some would entirely be turned off to the film as a result.
But all things considered, this is an entertaining, criminally overlooked detour from Altman’s usual fare that definitely deserves far more respect than it currently has. At the very least, it’s worth seeing just to discover the titular character’s true feelings about spinach, which he so heatedly chugged in the original cartoon.