EIFF 2016: Popeye (1980)


Popeye is one of those movies so bad that it forces you to question just what you’ve missed in your own interpretation of the onscreen action. Sorry to just jump right in there with that opening sentence, but there’s no need to beat about the bush. It’s a movie so bizarre and awful that you start to doubt your own sense. And the fact that it’s based on a rather (used to be) popular cartoon character also leads to you doubting your memory. At least, that’s what happened during my viewing of the film.

I know Popeye from animated adventures that usually went something like this – Popeye would be a-wandering, big bad Bluto would be being mean to everyone and trying to whisk off Olive Oyl, and there would be a finale in which Popeye would struggle to reach a supply of spinach that would give him the strength required to see off Bluto for another day. Yes, there were other characters around, and some diversions, but the essence of most of these cartoons remained the same. Cartoon characters often follow a template. Just ask someone to describe one Pepe Le Pew cartoon and you soon realise that they’re describing pretty much every single one of them (not that I don’t laugh heartily at them all).

As for Robert Altman, who directed this movie, I already know of his immense talent from films such as The Player, McCabe & Mrs Miller, and The Long Goodbye. I have a lot more of his movies to discover, but I can be thankful that this wasn’t the first movie I saw from him.

So there’s the fun nature of Popeye and the directorial skills of Altman. Robin Williams is in the lead role. What could go so wrong? Almost everything, as it turns out. I guess the biggest problem this movie has is a severe lack of fun. One or two moments aside, this is one of the most depressing “family” musical movies that I’ve ever seen. From the opening scenes, in which a lone Popeye arrives at the bleak, economically struggling, harbour town of Sweethaven, to the many musical numbers that qualify more as dirges than toe-tappers, this is a grim and grey piece of work. Some people may say that it’s more in line with the original Popeye comic strips, which I know a lot less about, but I think it would be pertinent to note that this movie was based on a character because of his popularity among a fanbase that, most likely, also weren’t completely aware of his pre-cartoon existence.

The sad thing is that Williams makes for a good Popeye, and Shelley Duvall is a perfect fit for Olive Oyl (even if the character is still as annoying as ever). Paul Dooley and Paul L. Smith are equally perfectly cast in the roles of Wimpy and Bluto, respectively. Which makes the disastrous movie surrounding them all the more frustrating. Frustratingly disjointed and episodic in nature, the film can be broken down into the following sections: Popeye arrives at Sweethaven and gets himself in trouble, Popeye and Olive find Swee’pea, there’s a fairly amusing fight against a huge boxer, Swee’pea reveals a strange talent that others look to make use of, and the final scenes revolve around a treasure hunt. Even that description of the events makes the movie seem like more fun than it actually is.

Sometimes audiences have simple needs. Despite some enjoyably off-kilter visuals and design work, this film doesn’t fulfil those needs. Even when we get an iconic Popeye moment, it doesn’t feel satisfying. Barely worth watching as an intriguing mess, a curio that grows more confounding when you start to consider how it ever got through the development process, but most people will just find this as painful an experience as I did.

Popeye is screening at 1500 on 25th June at Filmhouse 1 as part of EIFF 2016. It is one of a number of films making up the strand known as POW!!! Live Action Comic Strip Adaptations: The First Generation.


Film Rating: ★½☆☆☆

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