What do you do if you can’t get rights to the Little Orphan Annie? That was the problem facing legendary producer Robert Evans when Paramount lost the bidding war for the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Annie, but something as minor as rights issues wasn’t going to stop Evans so he called an emergency executive meeting to ask the question, “Which comic strip characters do we own?” and this, of course, resulted in the answer of Popeye the Sailor Man, which leads to the bigger question, “Is that really the best way to decide on a multi-million dollar movie?”
When one thinks of Popeye a few things leap readily to mind; his massive forearms, his squinty eye, that eating spinach gives him an incredible boost in strength and, most assuredly, the violent love triangle between him, Olive, and Bluto. That last element is key to the mythos of Popeye the Sailor Man and was really the only thing screenwriter Jules Feiffer and director Robert Altman had to hang their picture on, unfortunately, that wasn’t quite enough to hold a two-hour movie together. The comic strips and cartoons could never be considered all that plot-centric and Altman and company strangely took that disjointed aspect to heart and created a movie that was simply an assemblage of comedic sequences without a central plot to hold the whole thing together.
The movie opens with Popeye (Robin Williams) arriving in the seaside town of Sweet Haven in search of his long-lost pappy, but instead of a tearful reunion with the man who abandoned him he is confronted with a large collection of oddball characters who live under the thumb of the mysterious and never seen, Commodore, whose insane taxes are enforced by the brutish Bluto (Paul L. Smith), a hulking man who has his mind set on marrying Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) despite the fact that she’s broken their engagement multiple times. Almost as inexplicably Popeye and Olive find themselves drawn together – Cupid’s bow must work overtime in this town – but with the introduction of plot thread of them finding an abandoned baby, which they call “Swee’Pea” (Wesley Ivan Hurt ), they slowly become a somewhat family, and that’s pretty much the plot of the movie. Sure, we also learn that the enigmatic Commodore is actually Popeye’s long-lost father Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston) and that Swee’Pea can somehow predict the future, which results in the baby being kidnapped by Wimpy (Paul Dooley) and given to Bluto so that he can make a fortune by predicting gambling results.
Robert Altman did a fantastic job with such ensemble pictures as M*A*S*H and Nashville but those were films that were based in a somewhat grounded reality, while in the case of the fantastic cartoon world of Popeye – which, I’ll admit, was wonderfully realized by production designer Wolf Kroeger – doesn’t really have much depth beyond its clapboard sets and goofy costumes to draw an audience in. Musical numbers are randomly plopped down without much impact on the plot and, at best, they could be called nicely padded moments and at worst painfully unfunny, and aside from the Sweethaven anthem and Olive Oyle’s “He Large” ode to Bluto they are fairly forgettable. From Popeye’s arrival to the film’s conclusion I never quite found myself engaged in any of these wacky characters and most of this comes from the fact that we never become invested in their goals. Popeye’s desire to find his father comes across as rather arbitrary and the complete left turn the plot makes with the introduction of psychic Swee’Pea and the Commodore’s treasure didn’t help any.
Watching this movie one cannot help ponder on a few things that the script never bothered to address. Olive Oyl is not rich or beautiful so why exactly does Bluto want to marry her? How did Poopdeck Pappy and Bluto set up this whole Commodore con game in the first place? And what is it with Swee’Pea’s precognitive abilities and why would a mother abandon a baby that can see the future? Also, I know Wimpy is a bit of a chiseler but isn’t kidnapping a baby for a bag of hamburgers seem a bit extreme for his character? While the film offers little in the way of answers to such pressing questions it does seem to have time for lots of comedic slapstick provided by the background cast, which was made largely out of circus performers, which I will admit is all performed admirably but it obviously doesn’t go towards moving the film’s rather thin plot forward.
That all said, one must admire Altman’s casting because he really nailed it with the hiring of Robin Williams for the title role as he simply perfect as Popeye, which was also his first movie role, and he never breaks character to wink at the camera to let the audience in on the joke, but even his great performance pales in comparison to that of Shelly Duvall’s as one must assume was part that she was born to play. Ray Walston also did an excellent job as the irascible Poopdeck Pappy but his appearance during the last act can be considered a case of too little too late, as for Paul L. Smith was as Bluto, well, even though he was the one actor who didn’t perform his own songs he was perfectly fine in the role but I personally couldn’t help thinking “What, you guys couldn’t get Brain Blessed?”
One can certainly admire all the work that went into this movie but that doesn’t stop a person from being occasional bored and or confused by the mess of its screenplay while watching this cacophony of nonsense. I’ll admit the action scenes were all well executed and the cast across the board provide noteworthy performances, but none of that adds up to a product that comes close to what Max Fleischer cartoons provided decades earlier. The few moments of “cartoon craziness” are simply overshadowed by a fairly uninteresting plot and though Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall should be given high marks for their work here it wasn’t enough to save this picture. Robert Altman’s Popeye will forever remain one of those “What were they thinking?” musicals.
Note: The marvellous set for the small town of Sweethaven was built on the Mediterranean island of Malta and is still standing there to this day and is now a tourist attraction called Popeye’s Village.
Movie Rank - 6/10
Robert Altman’s Popeye is not without its charm but neither he nor his screenwriter seemed to have any clear idea as to what to do with this particular comic strip character and the result was a convoluted mess bolstered up by a few great performances.