Robert Altman swings for the fences with his adaptation of Popeye, a movie that looks, sounds, and behaves so much like the cartoons that inspired it that the actors playing the parts seem etched from a sketchbook. Certainly Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl, the lanky, shrill damsel always caught between the love of Popeye and the brute magnetism of Popeye’s rival Bluto. And an argument can be made for Robin Williams, who consumes Popeye with an effortless appetite but is certainly not bound to the role. Williams has had an admirable and varied career since, and I am so sad that he is no longer with us.
Popeye is William’s debut as an actor, and while it is certainly not the most laudable of parts, it is the most courageous. Upon Popeye did Williams build his empire of whacky faces and elastic voices, but unlike the freedom of 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam, which constructed itself around Williams’ stand-up routines, Popeye is more to the point, rigid, and unforgiving. There is less leeway, which makes the manic sincerity with which he tackles the Sailor’s character all the more brilliant. There is not a note out of place, and for a man so comfortable with his own anonymity, he makes Popeye irrevocably recognisable.
He gets help though. Altman has realised a wondrous world in this film. The production design, in particular, is of the highest quality. The setting is a sleepy coastal hamlet called Sweethaven, and the team responsible for the set’s manifestation in Malta did such a precise job that now — much like The Shire of The Lord Of The Rings movies — it has become a tourist spot, complete with theme park rides and hotels.
But in the movie it is a rickety village, made entirely out of timber, and the houses lean on each other for dear life. Popeye arrives in search of his long-lost father who, according to his memory, used to throw him in the air as a child and not be there to catch him. He bunks up in the spare room of the Oyl household, and before he knows it, is rescuing Olive from her engagement to Bluto (Paul L. Smith), who looks, quite surprisingly, like Orson Welles in a sailor’s costume. There is also the inclusion of several other characters from the Popeye milieu, most famous of whom are Wimpy (Paul Dooley), the overweight glut who would trample a dog to get a hamburger; Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston), Popeye’s father who could double as his twin; and Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), the abandoned infant who lands in the plot because he’s featured in the cartoons. The most convincing is Wimpy; Dooley plays him completely straight and, apart from Duvall, mirrors his cartoon counterpart sublimely.
All the characters come to a head at the movie’s climax, which features a boat chase, a sword fight, and an angry giant octopus. But these little events are insignificant next to the sights and sounds of Sweethaven. All its citizens are caricatures, and Altman’s smartest decision is allowing them to remain caricatures. The movie is sweet for not taking itself seriously at all. Many innocents get pushed around, thrown through windows, smashed through floorboards and forced to sit on burning stoves; it is slapstick at its slappiest.
There are also a few musical numbers, because the executives thought songs might add another dimension to the experience, but they are forgettable tracks, and they distort the rhythm of the movie’s current. Yes, Popeye is generally erratic in pace, but how much can you really expect from a movie born from such whimsical material? For what it is, and for what it’s meant to be, Popeye is a fun adventure. Of course, it tailors in its target audience scope; you must know the cartoon well before tackling the film, otherwise you will be dumbfounded. And even if you know the cartoon, you might be dumbfounded still — Robin Williams does things in Popeye no other man can do, and from this grew this generation’s most enigmatic funny man.
Best Moment | Popeye telling Olive about his memories of his father.
Worst Moment | Nope.
Note: This review of Popeye is dedicated to Robin Williams, who passed away of apparent suicide on the 11th of August.