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Popeye

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 113 minutes

Starring: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall

Screenplay by: Harry Nilsson
Music and Lyrics by: Jules Feiffer
Based on the comic strip by: E.C. Segar

Directed by: Robert Altman

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $19.99

Features: None

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (12 Scenes)

Released: June 24th, 2003

 

 

I probably will never understand the appeal of films like "Popeye." Why do movie studios sometimes go through stages where they think that taking something beloved from the second dimension will be better and more appealing than the third dimension? While the whole concept has never exactly become a genre movie, they all tend to be pretty horrendous. Here's a fun challenge for you: think of a good movie where something developed and meant as a cartoon or comic strip (NOT comic book) was a decent live action movie. I dare you. Can't think of any, eh? Well that's okay. Usually, most things are left better the way they are.

The "Popeye" film was supposed to be a smash hit, but was pretty much a bomb. Released in the integral Christmas season of 1980 as a joint production between Paramount and Disney, the film had a lot going for it. Rising star Robin Williams as Popeye, Robert Evans producing (notice how no one talks about this film when they discuss his illustrious career?), Robert Altman directing and a creation that many were familiar with and loved. Film with big production values and a steady stream of anticipation have come and gone, but what went wrong with "Popeye"? Let me to try to figure out why.

Based on the E.C. Segar's popular comic strip (and later popular cartoon shorts), "Popeye" tells the story of everyone's favorite spinach-loving sailor (played by Robin Williams). Popeye arrives in the seatown of Sweethaven, where his life changes drastically. He meets a burger lover named Wimpy, finds a lost baby with the name Swee'pea, falls in love with Olive Oyl, finds his long lost father and of course, meets up with/makes enemies/inevitably must face the nasty Bluto. More or less, it's what we all know "Popeye" for and who inhabits his life. It's just greatly stretched out.

The movie is not great, but "Popeye" probably isn't as bad as you have heard or remember it. The film is pretty loose in its design, and in some respects, it was probably meant to be that way since it sets up the whole Popeye character and how all these people come together in his life. I don't think audiences responded to the movie so well because it stays remarkably true to the original strip, something which many should appreciate and admire. It's a shame that was the film's downfall, though I bet many out there (the film does have plenty of fans believe it or not) give it the respect it deserves. But I bet the strip's more obscure characters and issues left audiences feeling alienated - keep in mind that this isn't a modern retelling or reimaging of who Popeye is or what he stands for. The film just wasn't - and still isn't - what people were expecting.

The film does go all over the place, and it feels quite bloated. Jules Feiffer, a well recognized cartoonist (and a wonderful novelist) wrote the script. I love his writing and I know he has such passion for cartooning, which makes it all the more puzzling and surprising why his screenplay for this movie is so flat. The film's development in its story and characters feel awkward and at times, tacked on. The humor is fine for a more classic era, almost Vaudevillian in a sense but often feels out of place and is hard to really see through. I'm sure Robert Altman tried to bring some structure to it while filming it and make it more cohesive, but apparently that didn't come together in the editing room. The film can be amusing and has some sweet, often comical moments, but it's overlong and should have been much tighter and more linear. "Popeye" was supposed to be a family movie that would appeal to all ages, but it's boring and quite harried. I have a hard time imagining a family sitting down watching this movie and thriving over it, wanting to sit through it over and over again.

The film ultimately feels like an experiment for Altman as he tackles something he never really did before and hasn't since. He really seems more focused on bringing the whole harbor world of Sweethaven to life. The film has some impressive sets, costumes and design aspects, but it comes across pretty damn cheesy to the point of gut-busting laughter. It all seems too fake and it's hard to get into. It attempts to create some kind of heartwarming magic, but it doesn't. Though maybe most hilarious is the fact that "Popeye" is a musical. Yes, it's a musical with songs and lyrics by Harry Nilsson. But these songs, packed with choreography, are so damn crazy. The tunes can be a little catchy I suppose, but the lyrics don't amount to anything substantial. The songs really don't feel complete, often going in circles as it tries to envoke Broadway-style fever for the audience and pack a strong punch. Why would they make this film a musical? To make it more appealing to families? Who knows. But at least one song has gotten some extra life as a recurring motif in P.T. Anderson's differently bizzare "Punch-Drunk Love."

"Popeye" does have a strength though, and while it doesn't save the film, it makes it more bearable. The acting is certainly enjoyable here. Robin Williams, one of my personal favorite actors, is flawless as Popeye. Who knows what he did to prepare for this role, and while we all know he does great impressions, he captures the voice, the mumbling and mannerisms for the character just so wonderfully. He's the definitive man for the role, and it's really one of those performances that are best seen rather than described. Shelley Duvall is a fine Olive Oyl and plays fine against Williams, while Paul Dooley and Paul Smith are fine in their key roles.

What annoys me about "Popeye" is that it seems to try too hard too often and is quite artificial in design. I don't know about any of you, and as talented as the actors are in the film and as strong as the film's production design is, something just doesn't seem right seeing the world of Popeye in live action. It feels a bit grating and a bit annoying. The film does have its moments, but in the end, it's a pretty weird movie. It alienates you to a strong degree. Robert Altman, Robin Willians and Robert Evans are incredibly talented people and have made much better movies than this. It's a shame the trio, among others who worked on this movie, couldn't align together to make something truly memorable and brilliant.

 

"Popeye" is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, in glorious anamorphic widescreen. The film looks much better than I anticipated, given the only semi-decent treatment Paramount has given past catalog titles in recent months (I wonder if they spent time cleaning it up?). The transfer isn't perfect: there's some specks, scratches and dirt pieces here and there, noticeable edge enhancment, some noise and edge halos. Everything else looks pretty great. Detail is remarkable, fleshtones are very pretty and the film's varied, seaside-based color schemes are well saturated. The film is slightly soft at times, but is pretty sharp overall. Well done!

 

"Popeye" has been remixed in English 5.1 Dolby Digital, and it's also much better than I anticipated since most remixes tend to disappoint. What the film benefits from is that it is a musical, and the remix is pretty broad in its design which accompanies how the film plays out.. Harry Nilsson's songs, as strange as they are, spread around the channels and fill them pretty nicely. They come across strong but feel just right when you listen to them and pack a larger ambiance than you'd expect. The songs sound strong and pretty flamboyant. There are also some decent surround (but not gut-popping) effects in the action oriented scenes, and the dialogue and ADR are pretty clear. None of the sound elements overpower anything, which is good. In all, surprisingly great and quite satisfying. Also included with this release is an English Dolby Surround track, plus your standard English closed captions and English subtitles.

 

People don't like this movie and it was pretty much a dud at the box office... and while Robert Altman usually does commentaries, I guess he had nothing to say about this.

 

"Popeye" is remembered more for what it failed to do than what it did right, so if you've never seen this movie and are curious or haven't seen it in awhile then I'd say it's worth (re)visiting. If you're a fan of this flick, then get this DVD because chances are this will be its only release on our favorite format. While there are no extras (again, a commentary by Altman would have been appreciated) here, the presentation is fantastic for a Paramount catalog title with its very nice 5.1 remix and a transfer that holds it own - all for a decent retail price.