It’s been 40 years since Popeye paddled its way onto cinemas, but instead of making a splash, it is generally believed to have sunk upon impact.
Not every prominent critic ragged on Robert Altman’s adaptation of the iconic E.C. Segar comics character. Siskel and Ebert both pointed their thumbs skyward. But Los Angeles’ snarky Stinkers Bad Movie Awards channeled the critics’ consensus when designating Popeye the Worst Picture of 1980.
Today, it’s the detractors that seem out of touch; yesterday’s bombs are today’s cult classics. As with Xanadu, Heaven’s Gate, Showgirls and so many others, history has been kinder to Popeye, whose low-grade SFX, outsized performances and deliberate sense of artifice have endeared it to new generations of cineastes. It’s a film that has been well overdue for a Blu-ray treatment, and Paramount’s new edition ($10.69) is as visually gorgeous as anyone could hope for.
There were at the time, and still are, numerous points of entry to Popeye. There are followers of the comic-strip character, of course, and fans of Robin Williams, for whom Popeye was his first starring role in a motion picture. There’s the music, written and composed by baroque pop iconoclast Harry Nilsson, which stands the test of time (Paul Thomas Anderson used Shelley Duvall’s lovely “He Needs Me” to poignant effect in Punch-Drunk Love). There’s the Jules Feiffer script, with its creative, English-butchering dialogue, and there is the movie’s magical set, built on Malta and still standing today, a self-contained world of whimsy that must have had some influence on a young Wes Anderson.
It’s here that the title sailor (Williams) arrives at the movie’s outset, following an introductory crack of divine lightning over the water. He alights, one eye in perpetual squint and pipe angled from his lips like a fifth appendage, in the storybook shantytown of Sweethaven, seeking his estranged father. He ends up being engulfed in the town’s wacky energy, finding both himself and a family by discovering the abandoned Swee’Pea in a basket, and rescuing willowy Olive Oyl (Duvall) from her temperamental fiancée, the colossal Bluto (Paul L. Smith, a heavy of spaghetti Western fame).
Popeye remains a prophetic showcase for the embryonic Robin Williams persona. Even at this inchoate stage in his filmography, he was a dervish of manic inspiration, muttering quippy retorts under his breath like a madman, his improvs indistinguishable from the script.
It’s a performance fully of a piece with Altman’s galumphing vision for a live-action cartoon. In an archival interview in one of the Blu-ray’s extras, he reveals that he directed everybody to be “two-dimensional.” He hired circus performers in his ensemble, and they helped to create an atmosphere rich in farcical business and gag-a-second slapstick. Banal acts of everyday living become opportunities for inspired high-jinks. Everything from clothing oneself to preparing food to sitting down to eat it descends into elaborately choreographed comic dances.
In this sense, Popeye can be remembered as both outlier and encapsulation of Altman’s style. Surely, it is his silliest, broadest comedy, a movie with an intended audience far different from the art-house meanderings of then-recently completed works like 3 Women and Quintet. In the bonus features, he likens the film to “America’s babysitter.”
But like M.A.S.H., it is episodically structured, and like Nashville, it’s filled with earthy music and unexpected passion. When Popeye settles down from its chaotic early scenes, it becomes arrestingly sweet and tender, thanks in large part to the winsome pathos of Duvall.
At nearly two hours, it does manage to overstay its welcome — the producers were running out of money, and it showed, by the time they got around to shooting the climax, an oceanfront battle royale involving a giant octopus — but it’s all in good fun.
The Blu-ray’s special features include a brief montage of images from the film’s Hollywood premiere, a medley of the musical sequences separated out from the rest of the movie, and two short making-of docs. Return to Sweethaven offers an overview of the production itself and the film’s legacy, and The Popeye Company Players focuses on the cast. The Altman interviews that shed the most light on Popeye’s production are from a 1999 sit-down, while the director’s son Stephen Altman, who handled the props, shares the most recent insights; he was interviewed this past summer. Most bittersweet are Robin Williams’ reflections: He was interviewed in 2014, the year he took his life, his high spirits betraying none of his depression.
Williams recalls that it was he who suggested to producer Robert Evans, then looking for a way to end the picture, that his character should walk on water. This being Williams, he doesn’t just walk — he prances, a celebration full of more excess energy than even a spinach-fueled Popeye would usually embody. It’s a fitting way to remember him.