Wrong, Wrong, Wrong (Right)

Remember how your mama told you “two wrongs don’t make a right?”  Well, maybe two wrongs don’t make a right, but a half dozen or so might.  Consider Robert Altman’s 1980 POPEYE.  Almost without exception, every creative decision that went into its manufacture was catastrophic.  Yet while any one of these horrible ideas could have completely derailed the whole thing alone, once you stack them one atop another you get a critical mass that starts to cancel itself out.  Eventually, it cycles around the back of wrong and comes out the other side as imminently watchable.  How is POPEYE a glorious mess?  Let me count the ways.

Popeye

BAD IDEA #1: WHAT IT IS.

Let’s begin with the bad idea at the heart of this: making a musical out of POPEYE at all.  It is nearly indefensible.

At the very least, from a 1980 standpoint it makes no sense.  Nowadays we are forced to endure a culture that excretes every conceivable product as a musical: I still can’t understand what would compel someone to make SHREK: THE MUSICAL, or what sort of human being would pay to go see it.  But dial the Way-Back machine back to 1980, and there was a tacit understanding that movie musicals were adaptations of Broadway shows that had proven themselves.

POPEYE would jump directly from a cartoon series whose heyday was in the 1930s to a 1980 movie musical with nothing in-between.  Harry Nilsson, an accomplished and acclaimed popular composer with a number of hit tunes to his name, composed the songs.  Critics tore into him for the soundtrack, but I bought it on audio cassette at the age of 10 and listened to it until the tape wore out.  Maybe that says something about my blinkered and unregenerate musical tastes, but I really like the POPEYE songs.  However, I can freely admit they are weird.  Minor key melodies, unpretty voices, raggedy recordings of songs with bizarre lyrics—it’s an acquired taste.  Most audiences were unwilling to acquire the taste.

BAD IDEA #2: WHAT IT IS ABOUT.

In 1980, there were several generations of Americans who had grown up with Popeye as a beloved cartoon hero.  The theatrical cartoons created by the Fleischer brothers in the 1930s had outstripped Mickey Mouse in popularity.  A few decades later, packages of these cartoons were sold to television where they lived in perpetual rotation.  Other, crappier, renditions were produced directly for television consumption.  There was scarcely a citizen of our great republic who didn’t know the scrawny little one-eyed sailor with his bulbous forearms and passion for spinach.

And so, the film opens with a tribute to its cartoon origins… and right away we can see a problem:

Wrong movie

“I’m in the wrong movie!” announces Popeye (and why plant this idea in the audience’s mind at all, much less the moment they first sit down?  You’re just handing ammunition to your enemies).

SUPERMAN had opened with a similar conceit—a kid flipping through the original SUPERMAN comic book, as a way of paying tribute to the deep origins of a popular pop cultural entity.  Fair enough, but the choice of the B&W Fleischer clip represents a problematic attitude that will dog the entire production.  (And it’s not even the real thing—it’s mocked up for the movie!  The only people who would recognize it, would also excoriate it for inaccuracy)

If the filmmakers wanted to tip their hats to the classic cartoons, more power to them—and certainly the B&W Fleischer ‘toons were superior to the later color ‘toons.  It’s an act of rightful fealty to pay respect to the best version of Popeye… but the B&W ‘toons almost never aired on TV.  Only recently, and thanks to much loving effort on the part of serious cartoon archivists, the B&W Popeyes have come out on DVD.  Back in 1980, the number of people who would even have known that Popeye cartoons had once been in B&W could be counted on the fingers of none of your hands.

This desire to overlook the facile, superficial notions of what Popeye meant to 1980s audiences and return to the character’s roots would take the filmmakers much farther than the B&W Fleischer ‘toons.

Cartoonist E.C. Segar’s “Thimble Theater” had been a thriving newspaper strip for ten years by the time, in 1929, a weird-looking sailor made a brief appearance as a background character in one installment.  Popeye stole readers’ hearts and stayed around, quickly overtaking the rest of the strip, which was belatedly renamed in his honor.  In 1933, the Fleischer brothers licensed the right to adapt Popeye into theatrical cartoons, nearly all of which were made in B&W.

Eventually, the perpetual war between Disney and the Fleischers took its toll, and the brothers sold out to Paramount, which took over the Popeye shorts and, in 1943, transitioned them to color.  It would be these later color cartoons that would have the greatest prominence on television, the ones best remembered by viewers.

Enter Jules Feiffer, screenwriter for the 1980 POPEYE.  Feiffer brought a first-hand knowledge of cartoons, a grown-up satirical sensibility, a child’s sense of wonder, and a proficiency with all manner of writing to the project.  But he was perhaps TOO perfect for the job, and overthought it.

Feiffer drank deeply of Popeye’s history, and throughout the film will show off the fruits of his research.  Obscure characters and references rebound, but at the same time the aspects of the character that most audiences would recognize have been muted, undermined, or rejected.  The attitude seems to be, “whatever you think you know about Popeye, forget it.  This ain’t your father’s Popeye.”  But people didn’t think they knew that much about Popeye!  They had a passing acquaintance with a familiar cartoon that made them feel good, and came to the movies on a curiosity hunt.

Feiffer skipped over the color Paramount ‘toons and took most of his inspiration from the original Segar strips (which had been reprinted in bound form the previous decade, but would not have been au courant for most viewers in any case).  Thus we find the story rooted in the dour burg of Sweethaven.  It is a desolate port town where the citizens are ruthlessly taxed by their unseen dictatorial overlord, the Commodore, and kept in check by his brutal henchman, Bluto.  Living daily under such Stalinist rule, the Sweethavenites have become greedy and exploitative in return.

It is a town of leeches and parasites.  It is a place of stunted ambitions, unfulfilled desires, and reciprocal cruelty.

Sounds like a fun setting for a family-friendly musical, right?

Feiffer also took from the archives of Popeye lore details like his search for his deadbeat father Poopdeck Pappy, his adoption of the orphan Swee’Pea, and (drum roll please) his initial dislike of spinach!

Family Popeye

BAD IDEA #3: WHO MADE IT.

It has become fashionable to slag off Robin Williams—and he’s earned our scorn, thanks to decades of awful career choices and a shameless indulgence of the most theatrical mugging.  But back in 1980, Williams was one of America’s most promising new comedy stars.  POPEYE was his theatrical debut—he was still the star of MORK AND MINDY and would continue in that role for some time yet.  It is a canny sense of marketing to sign this hot new property for the film.

The role had originally been written for Dustin Hoffman.  Yup, you read that right.  Whatever else you say about Robin Williams, he’s a better choice for Popeye than Dustin Hoffman, so there’s that.  (Hoffman quit because he didn’t want to work with Feiffer).

Furthermore, what is Popeye?  He’s a character who is tightly wound, until the right triggers are pressed to unleash his anarchic energy.  Until that time, he wanders around muttering to himself.  So, what you’re looking for is an actor who can deliver a non-stop barrage of ad-libbed metatextual commentary, while giving off vibes of barely restrained chaos.  Who else in 1980 does that describe BUT Robin Williams?

Shelley Duvall

Then we’ve got Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl.  This is brilliant.  To play Popeye, Robin Williams needs prosthetic forearms and an affected accent (or should I say an affected axinkt?), but Shelley Duvall is already a cartoon character.  Surrounding them are an array of stupendous character actors: Donald Moffat, Richard Libertini, Paul Dooley, Ray Walston, Bill Irwin!  This is the movie that first introduced me to the genius of Bill Irwin.  His character is a nameless citizen of Sweethaven, given just a handful of scenes as a background player, but he performs peerless physical comedy so memorable that I was compelled to look up his name and learn more about him.  Can a supporting player ask for anything more?

Bill IrwinBill Irwin

So, in terms of the cast, I have no complaints.  This is one area where POPEYE dodged the bullet.  I’ve already mentioned Jules Feiffer, and his slavish fanboy adherence to the most obscure aspects of Popeye mythology.  I also mentioned the composer, Harry Nilsson, whose oddball songbook for the flick very nearly destroyed his own high-flying musical career.  That leaves us one remaining important creator, the director: Robert Altman.

WTF?

Forgive the text-era profanity, but WTF?

I mean no slouch on Altman.  By this point he already had notches in his belt for the likes of MASH, BREWSTER MCCLOUD, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, NASHVILLE—he could have retired and still had a more illustrious CV than most of his peers.  But, and this is a big but (to quote Pee-Wee Herman, “everyone has a big but”), Altman’s style is known for densely packed worlds that weave together overlapping dialogue, half-heard fragments, a myriad of side-stories and tangential digressions pinging off in the background.  They may follow a certain set of characters through a specific plotline, but there is always the understanding that other stories are all around as well.

How does such a realistic approach mesh with a musical?  Why, not at all, thanks for asking!  Musicals typically come to a halt for their big showstopping musical numbers.  It is this very aspect that turns off people who don’t like musicals, and attracts people who do.  The heightened unreality, the exhilarated fantasy—this is what enervates a good musical.  Altman cannot commit to any single idea long enough to give any of Nilsson’s songs center stage.

BAD IDEA #4: WHAT’S IT LIKE TO WATCH.

Altman’s technique of layering different events together fights against the impulses of musicals as a genre, while Feiffer’s script ruminates on Popeye ephemera and comic history.  These two problems actually collide, and in so doing generate a new problem.  Here’s how it goes: Feiffer has taken certain familiar aspects of the premise and pushed them off the main stage, held them in reserve, made them things to build up to. Time and again, the movie builds up to a Big Moment only to squander it pointlessly.

Altman’s meandering camera and unselective editing takes the smallest moments and packs them full of life and detail—at no point is the movie dull.  You could watch it endlessly and always find new things hidden in the margins (I speak from experience here, folks).  But, this works against him on the big scenes—the same impulse that makes every small bit huge makes every big bit small.  Time and again the film winds up to some big fight, some major setpiece, which is then every bit as fragmented and scatterbrained as everything else.  He can’t stay on point long enough to sell the big scenes.

BAD IDEA #5: WHAT IT MEANS.

We’re nearly 30 minutes into the film before Popeye hits anybody.  And he takes a LOT of provoking before he does.  Since arriving in town, he has been cheated, insulted, and generally rejected by everyone—most pointedly by those characters who are, along with him, our points of audience identification!  Desperate for companionship, Popeye is willing to buy a hamburger for the mooching Wimpy, if only to have someone to talk to.  But Wimpy is such a worthless friend that he accepts the free food but shows no interest in listening to Popeye spill his life’s story.

A hamburger today

The only people who do listen—and who hang on every word—are a gaggle of bullies who tease Popeye for his mispronunskiations of words.  Fed up, Popeye demands an apology.  The bullies respond by coercing phony apologies from innocent bystanders.

Throughout this, Popeye stands, boiling in indignation, as these bozos ridicule him, insult his family, intimidate helpless people… and he does nothing.  That is, nothing until the bullies demand an apology from HIM.  This is it, he cans’ts stands no mores, and lets loose.

POW!

Popeye “apologizes” by pummeling them into the floorboards.  We have been clued in to the strange moral code of this film now.

This is important, because up until this point, the phrase “You owe me an apology” has been a running gag, uttered as a catchphrase by Olive Oyl’s father, Cole Oyl.  The entire Oyl family is stymied by relentless bickering and unrelieved hostility—a microcosm of Sweethaven’s dysfunctions.  Always aggrieved, the Oyls constantly feel entitled to an apology.  And now we understand—the references to “apologies” are coded discussions of tit-for-tat retribution.  “Apologies”=vengeance.

To his credit, Popeye tried to avoid violence.  He never raises his fists first, and he takes a beating before he retaliates.  In its way, this is honorable.  But he does, eventually, hit back—and he hits harder than anyone else.  The movie tries to ennoble him as a figure of righteousness, but his fundamental nature as a fighter keeps undermining that message.

BAD IDEA #6: HOW WELL IT’S MADE.

After years of on-again/off-again development turmoil (during which the film passed through different directors’ hands: Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn…), when it finally landed in the hands of Feiffer, Altman, and Nilsson, it was as if someone had slammed their foot down on the accelerator.  Everything went into a frenzy: Nilsson took his musicians to Malta to record the soundtrack while the movie was filming; Robin Williams was obliged to perform some scenes with a long-sleeved trenchcoat to hide the fact his prosthetic arms hadn’t been made yet.  After it wrapped, the sound technicians discovered that Williams’ muttering hadn’t been picked up cleanly and had to be redubbed.

The whole thing looks ramshackle and haphazard.  And only rarely do those rough edges look intentional.

Sweethaven

CASE STUDIES:

I’ve selected three scenes from POPEYE that I think best illustrate the various calamities and misfires described above, and also (I hope) demonstrate how imminently entertaining the consequences can be.

First up is Popeye’s first song, “Blow Me Down,” sung as he first arrives in Sweethaven.  Watch for the following:

  1. Robin Williams’ post-dubbed mumbling, even through the song he’s supposed to be singing.
  2. Director Altman becomes distracted during the song and interrupts it for an exchange between Popeye and a peddler played by Richard Libertini.  Along with Popeye’s muttering, we have a hard time disentangling what is part of the song and what isn’t.
  3. Notice how Libertini’s character is a mean-spirited, selfish figure who tries to exploit Popeye.  He is, ahem, one of the more sympathetic characters in the film—and will be treated as one of Popeye’s friends and allies in later scenes.
  4. Popeye rejects the offer of spinach.  He hates spinach.  This is another example of the ways the movie flagrantly denies the things audiences would have come in taking for granted.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phXb1cA1DZE]

In this clip, Popeye sings “I Yam What I Yam.”  Things to look for:

  1. Altman’s complete disinterest in giving Popeye center stage for his big number—Popeye has to fight for our attention, against an overpopulated sequence thick with interesting ideas.
  2. This is meant to be a Big Moment.  It’s Popeye’s catchphrase, it makes musical reference to the classic cartoon theme song, and it’s a firm statement of principle.  But how strong does the song come across?  Robin Williams may be a natural choice to play Popeye, but can he sing?
  3. The odd moral code.  Popeye doesn’t want his kid Swee’Pea exploited in an illegal betting parlor, and is furious that Olive’s moral outrage falters when she realizes how much money Sweet Pea has earned in such a short time.  “Wrong is wrong even when it helps you!” admonishes Popeye.  That is, quite simply, a terrific moral.  I’d take that as a T-shirt, please.  But before you order up some WWPD wrist bands (“What Would Popeye Do?”), bear in mind the man who just said “Wrong is wrong even when it helps you,” is known for beating people up.  When his friends don’t listen to him here, he enforces his moral code with threats and physical intimidation. “I YAM WHAT I YAM!!!!”  Speak softly and carry a big stick, or sing loudly and carry a pair of ginormous forearms.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reVdMTZ5408]

And lastly, here is an excerpt from the finale.  Things to look for:

  1. This is one overlong movie.  It’s groans in close to 2 hours—which may not seem unreasonable in today’s bloated environment, but for a kids’ comedy in 1980 it’s easily a half-hour too long.  Especially for a movie that tanked at theaters and lived its life mostly on TV.
  2. Speaking of TV, look at the ‘scope aspect ratio of this clip, from the widescreen DVD.  Back when I was 10, and this aired almost daily on cable, this scene alternated wildly between panned-and-scanned shots and those that were just scrunched horizontally to fit.  I was deeply puzzled by this when I saw it at such a young age, and like my fascination with Bill Irwin it motivated me to do some research.  This movie—this scene from this movie—is where I first learned about aspect ratios.
  3. Popeye finally eats spinach.  You have to wait until the end of the movie to get it, and it comes amidst a sequence that is every bit as interested in Poopdeck Pappy as spinach.  This is fanboy service for fans of Segar’s strips.  Which have been reprinted again, in a lovely set, and deserve your attention if you’re interested.
  4. Watch the havoc.  The aesthetic of watching human beings behave like cartoons is the same one that runs through Warren Beatty’s  DICK TRACY or WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and I leave it to you decide whether the execution of it is adequate.  I’m not convinced it’s a good idea, no matter how it’s done, because even when you bring CGI to the party for something like THE MASK, cartoons still have the creative edge.  Drawing the comparison only makes live-action look inferior.  In other words, it’s an act of utter daring—or naïve foolishness.  But you know me, I’m a fan of both daring and foolishness.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0B4p8cN6vI4]

This movie derailed the careers of its creators—leaving toxic residue on anyone who touched it.  It wasn’t until THE PLAYER that Altman finally rebuilt his professional reputation; Nilsson was obliged to self-release his next album because of the POPEYE fallout; Williams struggled to establish himself as a screen star and would slag off what he derisively called his “Popeye years.”

Michael Phillips wrote a fine editorial in the Chicago Tribune recently about the difficulties faced by a critic reviewing a “so bad it’s good” movie—a work of artistic idiocy that nevertheless delivers entertainment.  Basically, as he sees it (and I generally agree), such things are works of sincerity that fail, and thus can be enjoyed at an ironic remove (a distinction he draws from things made with irony intended).  But I’m not talking about that at all—as far as I’m concerned, POPEYE isn’t “so bad it’s good,” because I think it’s just plain good.  There’s no irony involved—I enjoy it on its own terms.

I realize this is an unusual thing to say–not just that I am defending POPEYE, but that I am doing so without stating that any part of it is good.  Film critics typically articulate a list of attributes they admire, and conclude from the aggregation of those elements “this is good.”  You know the routine: such and such has beautiful cinematography, outstanding performances, innovative storytelling–it’s a must-see.  But we don’t live our daily lives that way.  We don’t choose who we love because they have it all: beautiful, smart, strong, rich, powerful, good-hearted.  We’re lucky if our loved ones meet those criteria, but we don’t choose them for that.  We just love–and we all have loved ones who are troubled, destructive, flawed, messy in various ways.  We don’t love them despite these flaws.  We just love them, and they’re flawed.  Why can’t we do the same with movies?  I can’t give you one single thing I think POPEYE gets right… but I don’t care.

It’s not good by normal criteria, but somehow the various deficiencies and missteps clash and combine in ways that cancel each other out and create weird new combinations–distinctive, quirky, memorably strange and genuinely unique.

I love it.

54 Responses Wrong, Wrong, Wrong (Right)
Posted By Devlin Thompson : December 4, 2010 10:21 am

One correction and one observation:
(A) The first comprehensive collection of the Segar strips wouldn’t come until the late ’80s. At that time, the only Segar readily at hand was the material in a 50th anniversary book from the previous year, edited by Bud Sagendorf, the then-current artist, and a selection of a few months worth of SundAy strips in THE SMITHSONIAN BOOK OF NEWSPAPER COMICS.
(B) Altman had the additional handicap of running out of money when they were already on location in Malta, so that the big finish of the original script is was replaced by a hastily improvised alternate conclusion . Clearly, that wasn’t the film’s only problem, but it certainly didn’t help.

Posted By Devlin Thompson : December 4, 2010 10:21 am

One correction and one observation:
(A) The first comprehensive collection of the Segar strips wouldn’t come until the late ’80s. At that time, the only Segar readily at hand was the material in a 50th anniversary book from the previous year, edited by Bud Sagendorf, the then-current artist, and a selection of a few months worth of SundAy strips in THE SMITHSONIAN BOOK OF NEWSPAPER COMICS.
(B) Altman had the additional handicap of running out of money when they were already on location in Malta, so that the big finish of the original script is was replaced by a hastily improvised alternate conclusion . Clearly, that wasn’t the film’s only problem, but it certainly didn’t help.

Posted By Shannon Smith : December 4, 2010 10:47 am

Thanks for this post. I’ve been wanting to do the same thing for a while. I think that finale scene, and really the last 30 minutes of the movie show that Robert Altman was either drunk out of his mind (there is testimony to his) or he just does not know how to make a movie. Especially the scene where they are riding out on the boat and Pappy is singing. It’s as if he just dumped all the actors on a boat and told them to randomly pretend they were acting out the scene. Like a dress rehearsal. Meanwhile, Altman is on another boat about 100 yards away with one camera. Randomly shooting what ever the thinks looks interesting at the moment. No master shot. No close ups. Just random shots. Like you were a bystander at a parade but the parade is a boat. Good luck editing that together.

That said. I love the movie. It’s just a mess I’m fascinated by it. I watch it and every second I think, “this can’t possibly exist.”

Posted By Shannon Smith : December 4, 2010 10:47 am

Thanks for this post. I’ve been wanting to do the same thing for a while. I think that finale scene, and really the last 30 minutes of the movie show that Robert Altman was either drunk out of his mind (there is testimony to his) or he just does not know how to make a movie. Especially the scene where they are riding out on the boat and Pappy is singing. It’s as if he just dumped all the actors on a boat and told them to randomly pretend they were acting out the scene. Like a dress rehearsal. Meanwhile, Altman is on another boat about 100 yards away with one camera. Randomly shooting what ever the thinks looks interesting at the moment. No master shot. No close ups. Just random shots. Like you were a bystander at a parade but the parade is a boat. Good luck editing that together.

That said. I love the movie. It’s just a mess I’m fascinated by it. I watch it and every second I think, “this can’t possibly exist.”

Posted By Martha Clark : December 4, 2010 10:52 am

Thanks so much for a really thorough and interesting look at POPEYE. Really made my day!

I was a teenager when the film came out, and had a very strong interest in movies and the art of filmmaking even then. For whatever reason, it is so difficult for me to watch this all the way through…maybe it’s because there is too much of everything (the cartoony intricate sets, too many extras everywhere, the music, etc.). I seem to get mentally worn out!

When Popeye came out, Robin Williams was the big star of the moment, and he’s great as Popeye, but two hours of Popeye OR Robin Williams is about 1 1/2 hours too much of either for me. The mumbling and hamming, ugh…Mork and Mindy was perfect for Mr. Williams, a half-hour sitcom.

Thanks again for posting, one of the very best essays on any film I’ve read in a long time! :)

Think I’ll watch it again and give it another chance!

Martha

Posted By Martha Clark : December 4, 2010 10:52 am

Thanks so much for a really thorough and interesting look at POPEYE. Really made my day!

I was a teenager when the film came out, and had a very strong interest in movies and the art of filmmaking even then. For whatever reason, it is so difficult for me to watch this all the way through…maybe it’s because there is too much of everything (the cartoony intricate sets, too many extras everywhere, the music, etc.). I seem to get mentally worn out!

When Popeye came out, Robin Williams was the big star of the moment, and he’s great as Popeye, but two hours of Popeye OR Robin Williams is about 1 1/2 hours too much of either for me. The mumbling and hamming, ugh…Mork and Mindy was perfect for Mr. Williams, a half-hour sitcom.

Thanks again for posting, one of the very best essays on any film I’ve read in a long time! :)

Think I’ll watch it again and give it another chance!

Martha

Posted By Johnny Bacardi : December 4, 2010 11:17 am

Nilsson’s music career was, for all practical purposes, over by the time he signed on for Popeye; his record sales had been in decline since his 1971-72 high point, due to a number of factors. He was bought out of his RCA contract in 1978. His next album, Flash Harry, which came out in 1980 (the same year as Popeye), wasn’t self-released; it just wasn’t released in the US. It came out via Mercury Records in Japan and the U.K. He did self-release a 45 to benefit gun control in 1982.

For the story, check his Wiki entry or buy/rent/borrow the Who is Harry Nilsson, and Why is Everybody Talking About Him? documentary…

Posted By Johnny Bacardi : December 4, 2010 11:17 am

Nilsson’s music career was, for all practical purposes, over by the time he signed on for Popeye; his record sales had been in decline since his 1971-72 high point, due to a number of factors. He was bought out of his RCA contract in 1978. His next album, Flash Harry, which came out in 1980 (the same year as Popeye), wasn’t self-released; it just wasn’t released in the US. It came out via Mercury Records in Japan and the U.K. He did self-release a 45 to benefit gun control in 1982.

For the story, check his Wiki entry or buy/rent/borrow the Who is Harry Nilsson, and Why is Everybody Talking About Him? documentary…

Posted By Mitch Farish : December 4, 2010 12:40 pm

First of all, I haven’t seen POPEYE, probably never will. With rare exceptions (Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN) I don’t really enjoy films made after 1968. To me they seem either too cynical (Altman), too hokey (Spielberg and Lucas), too violent (Scorsese and De Palma), or too derivative (Scorcese, De Palma, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Bogdonovich, etc.). Need I even mention that everyone has been seduced into an excess of CGI? Peter Jackson and James Cameron are particularly egregious examples.

Nevertheless, I can enlighten you about one mistake in your post. I was 26 in 1980. As a child I watched a lot of Popeye cartoons. Since we had a black-and-white set we didn’t know Fleischer’s creations from the ’30s were originally black-and-white. When we did get a color set in the ’70s I was a little surprised they were indeed black-and-white. But I was even more surprised there were several beautifully done color Popeye cartoons of extended length. Based on stories from THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, there was the Academy Award nominated POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINBAD THE SAILOR (1936), together with POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS ALI BABA’S FORTY THIEVES, and ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP. These were great animated films that should be more widely known.

Posted By Mitch Farish : December 4, 2010 12:40 pm

First of all, I haven’t seen POPEYE, probably never will. With rare exceptions (Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN) I don’t really enjoy films made after 1968. To me they seem either too cynical (Altman), too hokey (Spielberg and Lucas), too violent (Scorsese and De Palma), or too derivative (Scorcese, De Palma, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Bogdonovich, etc.). Need I even mention that everyone has been seduced into an excess of CGI? Peter Jackson and James Cameron are particularly egregious examples.

Nevertheless, I can enlighten you about one mistake in your post. I was 26 in 1980. As a child I watched a lot of Popeye cartoons. Since we had a black-and-white set we didn’t know Fleischer’s creations from the ’30s were originally black-and-white. When we did get a color set in the ’70s I was a little surprised they were indeed black-and-white. But I was even more surprised there were several beautifully done color Popeye cartoons of extended length. Based on stories from THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, there was the Academy Award nominated POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINBAD THE SAILOR (1936), together with POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS ALI BABA’S FORTY THIEVES, and ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP. These were great animated films that should be more widely known.

Posted By Thomas Krul : December 4, 2010 12:46 pm

I remember TIME magazine did a big article on this movie when it was released, complete with shots from the movie… shots which alternately confused and interested me at the time (a young kid). I totally agree with David: almost every single thing about the movie seems embarrassing or wrong, but something about the way it was carried through presented as a weird, lucid dream that I ended up loving. I still have strange dreams about this movie now and then!

It would be interesting to see where this film resides in the uncanny valley…

Posted By Thomas Krul : December 4, 2010 12:46 pm

I remember TIME magazine did a big article on this movie when it was released, complete with shots from the movie… shots which alternately confused and interested me at the time (a young kid). I totally agree with David: almost every single thing about the movie seems embarrassing or wrong, but something about the way it was carried through presented as a weird, lucid dream that I ended up loving. I still have strange dreams about this movie now and then!

It would be interesting to see where this film resides in the uncanny valley…

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : December 4, 2010 12:49 pm

A wonderful article, and I agree with everything that you said. My only problem is that I come out on the other side of the scale and absolutly loath the film. I remember my intense disappointment and bewilderment when I saw it back in 1980: my response was, as you succinctly put it Mr. Kalat, WTF!!! And yet, these many years later I have to laugh, because my own mother-in-law (for reasons I can’t understand but I’m sure you do) loves the film so much that I ended up purchasing the DVD for her. Go figure. Still, my hats off to you Mr. Kalat, for your intelligent analysis and, for expressing the far too often obscured fact that it is possible for someone to passionately love deeply flawed films for reasons that make sense to no one but the individual. And also because I LOVED your audio commentary on the DVD of Harry Langdon’s THREE’S A CROWD. In that case, I’m behind you 100%; I loved the film, and agree with you that it’s a unsung masterpiece. Not flawless mind you, but a masterpiece nevertheless.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : December 4, 2010 12:49 pm

A wonderful article, and I agree with everything that you said. My only problem is that I come out on the other side of the scale and absolutly loath the film. I remember my intense disappointment and bewilderment when I saw it back in 1980: my response was, as you succinctly put it Mr. Kalat, WTF!!! And yet, these many years later I have to laugh, because my own mother-in-law (for reasons I can’t understand but I’m sure you do) loves the film so much that I ended up purchasing the DVD for her. Go figure. Still, my hats off to you Mr. Kalat, for your intelligent analysis and, for expressing the far too often obscured fact that it is possible for someone to passionately love deeply flawed films for reasons that make sense to no one but the individual. And also because I LOVED your audio commentary on the DVD of Harry Langdon’s THREE’S A CROWD. In that case, I’m behind you 100%; I loved the film, and agree with you that it’s a unsung masterpiece. Not flawless mind you, but a masterpiece nevertheless.

Posted By morlockjeff : December 4, 2010 1:48 pm

Great dissection of a bizarre career move for Altman. I thought it was a bewildering mess when I first saw it in 1980 but really want to revisit it now that I’ve read your piece.

Posted By morlockjeff : December 4, 2010 1:48 pm

Great dissection of a bizarre career move for Altman. I thought it was a bewildering mess when I first saw it in 1980 but really want to revisit it now that I’ve read your piece.

Posted By Tom S : December 4, 2010 2:46 pm

It’s worth pointing out that the playful denial of tropes from familiar characters, like Popeye’s distaste for spinach here, has come up quite a few times lately- most notably, it was one of the major underlying jokes in Casino Royale. Bond’s snapped “I don’t give a damn” when asked if he prefers martinis shaken or stirred, the familiar brass Bond sting not coming up until nearly the end credits, and his discomfort with wearing a tux- which all work towards the sense that this isn’t yet the Bond we’re familiar with. It’s one of the best parts of the movie.

I wonder if it works less well here because a Bond movie can comfortably assume that the audience is very familiar with most of its canon, and the challenge is more to give the audience something unexpected- in Popeye, the audience has no idea of what to expect, and deliberate evasion of gratification does seem somewhat perverse.

I like Popeye, but my favorite Altman is Secret Honor, which also doesn’t seem like it should have worked, so perhaps my vote hardly counts.

Posted By Tom S : December 4, 2010 2:46 pm

It’s worth pointing out that the playful denial of tropes from familiar characters, like Popeye’s distaste for spinach here, has come up quite a few times lately- most notably, it was one of the major underlying jokes in Casino Royale. Bond’s snapped “I don’t give a damn” when asked if he prefers martinis shaken or stirred, the familiar brass Bond sting not coming up until nearly the end credits, and his discomfort with wearing a tux- which all work towards the sense that this isn’t yet the Bond we’re familiar with. It’s one of the best parts of the movie.

I wonder if it works less well here because a Bond movie can comfortably assume that the audience is very familiar with most of its canon, and the challenge is more to give the audience something unexpected- in Popeye, the audience has no idea of what to expect, and deliberate evasion of gratification does seem somewhat perverse.

I like Popeye, but my favorite Altman is Secret Honor, which also doesn’t seem like it should have worked, so perhaps my vote hardly counts.

Posted By Al Lowe : December 4, 2010 2:55 pm

I know you know what I am about to say but it is worth saying anyway.

POPEYE was like HEAVEN’S GATE. During the seventies the directors had the creative control and some wonderful films were made. Directors were like kids who now owned the candy stores. But because of films like those two the studios took the control back. Movie entertainment would now be run like a business intended to make profit, not to show how creative you can be, and we are all are still being affected by this.
Williams went on to play many loveable characters in movies that were crap but made lots of money.

What do I think of the quality of POPEYE?
When I first saw it, I wondered why they made the damn thing the way they did.
When you see a movie, your friends and acquaintances ask about it.
“How was it?” Would they have a good time if they saw it?
My answer at the time was “It is okay.” Hardly an encouraging recommendation.
I remember liking a couple of Popeye’s muttered asides.

Needless to say, I like Altman and even like some of his movies that noone else does, like KANSAS CITY.

Posted By Al Lowe : December 4, 2010 2:55 pm

I know you know what I am about to say but it is worth saying anyway.

POPEYE was like HEAVEN’S GATE. During the seventies the directors had the creative control and some wonderful films were made. Directors were like kids who now owned the candy stores. But because of films like those two the studios took the control back. Movie entertainment would now be run like a business intended to make profit, not to show how creative you can be, and we are all are still being affected by this.
Williams went on to play many loveable characters in movies that were crap but made lots of money.

What do I think of the quality of POPEYE?
When I first saw it, I wondered why they made the damn thing the way they did.
When you see a movie, your friends and acquaintances ask about it.
“How was it?” Would they have a good time if they saw it?
My answer at the time was “It is okay.” Hardly an encouraging recommendation.
I remember liking a couple of Popeye’s muttered asides.

Needless to say, I like Altman and even like some of his movies that noone else does, like KANSAS CITY.

Posted By Al Lowe : December 4, 2010 3:00 pm

I also like SECRET HONOR and have the VHS tape. It features a nonstop monologue by Richard Nixon. When it came out on very limited release a friend of mine and I stood outside the theater and encouraged people to go in.

Posted By Al Lowe : December 4, 2010 3:00 pm

I also like SECRET HONOR and have the VHS tape. It features a nonstop monologue by Richard Nixon. When it came out on very limited release a friend of mine and I stood outside the theater and encouraged people to go in.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 4, 2010 7:57 pm

I saw Popeye as a 6 year old who absolutely loved Popeye. I was slightly disappointed by it even then. It was too long and boring. I liked the ending where he punches the octopus to the sky. I saw it again five years later on TV and hated it. However, I have recently been considering watching it again due to my purchase of the Popeye cartoon DVDs (which are FANTASTIC! Lots of extras!). It now resides in my Netflix instant queue and will be watched very soon thanks to your encouragement.

P.S. The casting was great. That’s the only good thing I can say about it from memory.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 4, 2010 7:57 pm

I saw Popeye as a 6 year old who absolutely loved Popeye. I was slightly disappointed by it even then. It was too long and boring. I liked the ending where he punches the octopus to the sky. I saw it again five years later on TV and hated it. However, I have recently been considering watching it again due to my purchase of the Popeye cartoon DVDs (which are FANTASTIC! Lots of extras!). It now resides in my Netflix instant queue and will be watched very soon thanks to your encouragement.

P.S. The casting was great. That’s the only good thing I can say about it from memory.

Posted By Neville Ross : December 5, 2010 5:39 am

Unlike most of you, I LOVE Popeye and a lot of people and critics do too (in fact, people love the film so much that on the local Toronto show Saturday Night At The Movies a few years back, it was shown with a critical appraisal that was mostly positive, which is rare for a movie like this on a show like that.) Good article anyway.

Posted By Neville Ross : December 5, 2010 5:39 am

Unlike most of you, I LOVE Popeye and a lot of people and critics do too (in fact, people love the film so much that on the local Toronto show Saturday Night At The Movies a few years back, it was shown with a critical appraisal that was mostly positive, which is rare for a movie like this on a show like that.) Good article anyway.

Posted By Rob Farr : December 5, 2010 8:55 am

This is one movie crying out for the Criterion DeLuxe Box Set treatment with a whole disc devoted to Bill Irwin’s rushes. And commentary by Kalat of course.

Posted By Rob Farr : December 5, 2010 8:55 am

This is one movie crying out for the Criterion DeLuxe Box Set treatment with a whole disc devoted to Bill Irwin’s rushes. And commentary by Kalat of course.

Posted By Tom Scioli : December 6, 2010 2:38 pm

The Popeye soundtrack is a great album. I rank it up there with other great concept albums like Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, Dark Side of the Moon. It was a late era masterpiece for Harry Nilsson, teamed with “Smile” co-writer Van Dyke Parks. The only thing that would make this album better is if it included Harry’s vocal tracks. I was a fan of the album long before I saw the movie. The album tells the story with greater wit than the film (although I have grown quite fond of the movie, warts and all).

Posted By Tom Scioli : December 6, 2010 2:38 pm

The Popeye soundtrack is a great album. I rank it up there with other great concept albums like Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, Dark Side of the Moon. It was a late era masterpiece for Harry Nilsson, teamed with “Smile” co-writer Van Dyke Parks. The only thing that would make this album better is if it included Harry’s vocal tracks. I was a fan of the album long before I saw the movie. The album tells the story with greater wit than the film (although I have grown quite fond of the movie, warts and all).

Posted By Medusa : December 6, 2010 6:24 pm

I’m in the “I need to watch this again” camp, though I’ve always been fascinated by the look of the movie and the songs, which are nearly hypnotic, some of them at least.

Glad to read your shout-out to the amazing Bill Irwin! It may have been “Popeye” where I first came upon him, and I was so lucky to have seen him live doing “The Regard of Flight” in L.A. at the little theatre near the Hollywood Bowl (twice!) and also some of his other great stage work in San Diego, back in the day. I recently was thrilled to finally lay my hands on my VHS copy of the PBS presentation of TRoF which had been packed away for years; it still plays great and is of course pure genius and absolute hilarity and charm. Put that on DVD somebody, please!

I’m sure you’ve started a run on “Popeye” rentals, David! Your great essays have that effect on us out here!

Wonderful!

Posted By Medusa : December 6, 2010 6:24 pm

I’m in the “I need to watch this again” camp, though I’ve always been fascinated by the look of the movie and the songs, which are nearly hypnotic, some of them at least.

Glad to read your shout-out to the amazing Bill Irwin! It may have been “Popeye” where I first came upon him, and I was so lucky to have seen him live doing “The Regard of Flight” in L.A. at the little theatre near the Hollywood Bowl (twice!) and also some of his other great stage work in San Diego, back in the day. I recently was thrilled to finally lay my hands on my VHS copy of the PBS presentation of TRoF which had been packed away for years; it still plays great and is of course pure genius and absolute hilarity and charm. Put that on DVD somebody, please!

I’m sure you’ve started a run on “Popeye” rentals, David! Your great essays have that effect on us out here!

Wonderful!

Posted By Dave : December 6, 2010 11:04 pm

I have to politely but firmly disagree with anyone who thinks this movie is anything but a self-indulgent mess.

With the exception of the perfect cast (whom Altman utterly wasted through his ineptness) and Feiffer’s original script — which does a fantastic job of honoring both Segar and Fleischer — it was the creation of people who either knew nothing about how to write or create a musical, or who had utter contempt for the form.

The musical numbers are beyond weak, neither conveying character nor situation nor forwarding the plot, are musically and lyrically banal, and unimaginatively staged. A friend of mine who worked at Disney at the time told me that all the numbers had been cut out for the European release. How this is possible, I don’t know, but A) it wouldn’t have made the thing any less incomprehensible, and B) would probably have vastly improved things.

I saw the film the opening weekend and felt like the audience in “The Producers.” And by the time we’d gotten to the last “fight” sequence, it made a student film look professionally made.

There are only a few movies that, were they made into guitar picks and utterly vanished from the earth, I’d be wholly happy and unregretful. “Popeye” is one of them.

It’s an ungodly travesty.

Posted By Dave : December 6, 2010 11:04 pm

I have to politely but firmly disagree with anyone who thinks this movie is anything but a self-indulgent mess.

With the exception of the perfect cast (whom Altman utterly wasted through his ineptness) and Feiffer’s original script — which does a fantastic job of honoring both Segar and Fleischer — it was the creation of people who either knew nothing about how to write or create a musical, or who had utter contempt for the form.

The musical numbers are beyond weak, neither conveying character nor situation nor forwarding the plot, are musically and lyrically banal, and unimaginatively staged. A friend of mine who worked at Disney at the time told me that all the numbers had been cut out for the European release. How this is possible, I don’t know, but A) it wouldn’t have made the thing any less incomprehensible, and B) would probably have vastly improved things.

I saw the film the opening weekend and felt like the audience in “The Producers.” And by the time we’d gotten to the last “fight” sequence, it made a student film look professionally made.

There are only a few movies that, were they made into guitar picks and utterly vanished from the earth, I’d be wholly happy and unregretful. “Popeye” is one of them.

It’s an ungodly travesty.

Posted By It Wuz What It Wuz « Malapropist : December 6, 2010 11:07 pm

[...] It Wuz What It Wuz Almost without exception, every creative decision that went into its manufacture was catastrophic. Y… [...]

Posted By It Wuz What It Wuz « Malapropist : December 6, 2010 11:07 pm

[...] It Wuz What It Wuz Almost without exception, every creative decision that went into its manufacture was catastrophic. Y… [...]

Posted By Link Ink: ‘The Walking Dead’ Slays, Totoro’s Friends’ House and Mega Man Goes … | Iron Man 3 – IronMan3.org Fan Site : December 7, 2010 9:08 pm

[...] time since I gave any real thought to the 1980 live action Popeye film, but it turns out it’s well worth reflecting on. [The Comics [...]

Posted By Link Ink: ‘The Walking Dead’ Slays, Totoro’s Friends’ House and Mega Man Goes … | Iron Man 3 – IronMan3.org Fan Site : December 7, 2010 9:08 pm

[...] time since I gave any real thought to the 1980 live action Popeye film, but it turns out it’s well worth reflecting on. [The Comics [...]

Posted By Clay Ward : December 8, 2010 3:33 am

The thing is you guys just don’t love the Popeye thing. For example… in the “I Yam What I Yam.” clip… the whole taking him out of the center stage is the technique used to introduce who Popeye is… and who is Popeye? Popeye is a kind of go with the flow guy that lets things get pushed along in his life right up until something happens that makes him take a stand. He’s rolling up to a new port and he takes it all in but doesn’t really care that much. That’s the guy. And that’s what gets displayed by his not being front and center. And Robin Williams’ performance had to be level enough to convey all that and still charismatic enough to keep us focused and caring. It’s brilliant all together. The best adaptation of a cartoon in live action ever. The mumbling under the breath… Robin Williams just makes that his comic stage and it’s perfectly perfectly perfectly in character. And if you don’t love Popeye… then watch a Batman movie (that guy’s always center stage.)

Posted By Clay Ward : December 8, 2010 3:33 am

The thing is you guys just don’t love the Popeye thing. For example… in the “I Yam What I Yam.” clip… the whole taking him out of the center stage is the technique used to introduce who Popeye is… and who is Popeye? Popeye is a kind of go with the flow guy that lets things get pushed along in his life right up until something happens that makes him take a stand. He’s rolling up to a new port and he takes it all in but doesn’t really care that much. That’s the guy. And that’s what gets displayed by his not being front and center. And Robin Williams’ performance had to be level enough to convey all that and still charismatic enough to keep us focused and caring. It’s brilliant all together. The best adaptation of a cartoon in live action ever. The mumbling under the breath… Robin Williams just makes that his comic stage and it’s perfectly perfectly perfectly in character. And if you don’t love Popeye… then watch a Batman movie (that guy’s always center stage.)

Posted By JK : December 13, 2010 12:22 am

I agree with Mitch Faris: there were a couple of color Popeye cartoons that were very funny and very well-made. The two longer ones he mentioned looked like they used small model sets and added the cartoon characters to them, which made for some great 3-D shots.

My memory of Altman’s film? Dismay and anger. I’d talked a group of friends into going by saying, “No, this is a Robert Altman film–he made MASH!” I never said that again. Instead, I never went to an Altman film because I was telling myself, “It’s a Robert Altman film–he made POPEYE.”

And by the way, POPEYE is not the worst Robert Altman film ever made. That would be O.C. AND STIGGS, a flat, humorless little movie taken from one of the funniest stories in the National Lampoon magazine.

Posted By JK : December 13, 2010 12:22 am

I agree with Mitch Faris: there were a couple of color Popeye cartoons that were very funny and very well-made. The two longer ones he mentioned looked like they used small model sets and added the cartoon characters to them, which made for some great 3-D shots.

My memory of Altman’s film? Dismay and anger. I’d talked a group of friends into going by saying, “No, this is a Robert Altman film–he made MASH!” I never said that again. Instead, I never went to an Altman film because I was telling myself, “It’s a Robert Altman film–he made POPEYE.”

And by the way, POPEYE is not the worst Robert Altman film ever made. That would be O.C. AND STIGGS, a flat, humorless little movie taken from one of the funniest stories in the National Lampoon magazine.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 13, 2010 1:33 am

The Popeye Fleischer cartoons are fantastic. They did achieve some 3D type animation in the way they shot some of the cartoons. They go into detail as to how the shots were attained in the documentaries on the aforementioned DVD sets that came out a few years ago. I cannot recommend them enough.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 13, 2010 1:33 am

The Popeye Fleischer cartoons are fantastic. They did achieve some 3D type animation in the way they shot some of the cartoons. They go into detail as to how the shots were attained in the documentaries on the aforementioned DVD sets that came out a few years ago. I cannot recommend them enough.

Posted By DBenson : December 13, 2010 4:05 pm

Recalling a long-ago Feiffer interview where he discussed the film. He didn’t have anything really negative to say about Altman, except that Altman was more interested in the background action than the foreground story (there’s a lot of choreographed slapstick going on behind the lead players). It’s worth noting he didn’t disown or disavow the movie. And yes, his first loyalty was to Segar’s comic — Feiffer didn’t care for the animated versions at all, except for the voices.

Elsewhere Feiffer analyzed the decision to film in Malta — he had hoped it would be filmed in Martha’s Vineyard or someplace else close to home, but Altman’s working method was to get as far away from studio executives as possible. This necessitated building a whole community from scratch. For Feiffer, it required shifting his own weekly cartoon from politics to something that could be written weeks ahead. The result was a longish story in which a man goes to court claiming marriage is a violation of his civil rights.

Irwin’s character, by the way, was officially named Ham Gravy — Olive Oyl’s boyfriend and sidekick to her brother Castor. After Popeye unexpected caught on, he replaced Ham in both capacities and the latter quietly vanished from the strip.

Posted By DBenson : December 13, 2010 4:05 pm

Recalling a long-ago Feiffer interview where he discussed the film. He didn’t have anything really negative to say about Altman, except that Altman was more interested in the background action than the foreground story (there’s a lot of choreographed slapstick going on behind the lead players). It’s worth noting he didn’t disown or disavow the movie. And yes, his first loyalty was to Segar’s comic — Feiffer didn’t care for the animated versions at all, except for the voices.

Elsewhere Feiffer analyzed the decision to film in Malta — he had hoped it would be filmed in Martha’s Vineyard or someplace else close to home, but Altman’s working method was to get as far away from studio executives as possible. This necessitated building a whole community from scratch. For Feiffer, it required shifting his own weekly cartoon from politics to something that could be written weeks ahead. The result was a longish story in which a man goes to court claiming marriage is a violation of his civil rights.

Irwin’s character, by the way, was officially named Ham Gravy — Olive Oyl’s boyfriend and sidekick to her brother Castor. After Popeye unexpected caught on, he replaced Ham in both capacities and the latter quietly vanished from the strip.

Posted By Some Matt or other : December 18, 2010 2:07 am

Wow, that brings me back. I was three when the movie came out, but I saw it a lot on TV in the mid-to-late-’80s. I remember generally liking it, but thinking it wasn’t the greatest. Mostly I was amazed at how well-cast it was.

This review is excellent, though I do disagree on some points. Kalat says, “I can’t give you one single thing I think POPEYE gets right [...] but somehow the various deficiencies and missteps clash and combine in ways that cancel each other out.” However, I think many of the things he sees as missteps are actually positives, and the reason the movie was so widely panned is because of a very ordinary failure to charm or entertain enough through its length.

For instance, Kalat sees the adherence to the Segar material as a bad thing for an audience familiar only with the King Features cartoons (“and (drum roll please) his initial dislike of spinach!”), but to me it seems that Feiffer was first and foremost telling a Popeye origin story; the fact that he hewed to the Segar roots was secondary to that goal. Stringing the more well-known but later Popeye tropes out across the length of the film creates the atmosphere of a questing warrior slowly gathering the armor, weaponry, and talismans necessary to slay the dragon. When Popeye first appears, he has almost nothing Popeyeish about him – not even his forearms (though, as Kalat pointed out, that may have been simply a production foul-up, in which case I’ll call it a happy accident). His first act, presaging the flow of the whole movie, is to find a pipe on the ground and take it, beginning a quest that he never knows he’s on. To the character, his life is just a series of reactions to more or less random events, but to us, it’s the purposeful building of our hero.

So saving the spinach for last is no sin at all to me; rather, it makes perfect sense. The climactic moment is pretty genius, with Popeye still unaware of the elements of his own hero-quest and playing an unintentional Brer Rabbit. On paper, it’s wonderful – where it fails is in the simple experience of watching it. For example, that climactic fight drags on for too long with little change or sense of real danger. I’ll agree with Kalat that the musical elements were also misjudged throughout the movie; the opening number is muddled, nonsensical, and unfunny.

But Altman’s overcrowded sensibility isn’t always the negative that Kalat says it is; the “I yam what I yam” number begins quite appropriately, with Popeye’s feelings of being powerless and ignored symbolized by being literally unseen for parts of his own identity-declaring song. His marginalization in the first part is a counterpoint to his front-and-center place in the last part. Again, the format is perfectly fine; the problem is in all the mundane elements of execution that go wrong, such as the song ending just as it’s come into full swing, and the message being a little off-mark for the action of taking Swee’Pea back.

Maybe it’s my modern sensibility talking, since I’m used to the sequel deals being made before the first movie is even out, but to me it seems like POPEYE ends in a place where a King-Features-inspired story could easily begin. POPEYE 2 could be set in a kinder, gentler Sweethaven that Popeye needs to defend, lest enemies like Bluto and the Sea Hag drag it back down to its prior state. (I can imagine a funny sequence where Bluto tries to sneak back into town under the alias “Brutus” but is quickly recognized.)

Anyway. I really did like Kalat’s review – I just felt the need to express those thoughts. Mostly I’m just happy to think a little about a childhood movie that hasn’t crossed my mind in years. “What were you gonna call ‘im, ‘Baby Oyl’?” Hee hee hee hee.

Posted By Some Matt or other : December 18, 2010 2:07 am

Wow, that brings me back. I was three when the movie came out, but I saw it a lot on TV in the mid-to-late-’80s. I remember generally liking it, but thinking it wasn’t the greatest. Mostly I was amazed at how well-cast it was.

This review is excellent, though I do disagree on some points. Kalat says, “I can’t give you one single thing I think POPEYE gets right [...] but somehow the various deficiencies and missteps clash and combine in ways that cancel each other out.” However, I think many of the things he sees as missteps are actually positives, and the reason the movie was so widely panned is because of a very ordinary failure to charm or entertain enough through its length.

For instance, Kalat sees the adherence to the Segar material as a bad thing for an audience familiar only with the King Features cartoons (“and (drum roll please) his initial dislike of spinach!”), but to me it seems that Feiffer was first and foremost telling a Popeye origin story; the fact that he hewed to the Segar roots was secondary to that goal. Stringing the more well-known but later Popeye tropes out across the length of the film creates the atmosphere of a questing warrior slowly gathering the armor, weaponry, and talismans necessary to slay the dragon. When Popeye first appears, he has almost nothing Popeyeish about him – not even his forearms (though, as Kalat pointed out, that may have been simply a production foul-up, in which case I’ll call it a happy accident). His first act, presaging the flow of the whole movie, is to find a pipe on the ground and take it, beginning a quest that he never knows he’s on. To the character, his life is just a series of reactions to more or less random events, but to us, it’s the purposeful building of our hero.

So saving the spinach for last is no sin at all to me; rather, it makes perfect sense. The climactic moment is pretty genius, with Popeye still unaware of the elements of his own hero-quest and playing an unintentional Brer Rabbit. On paper, it’s wonderful – where it fails is in the simple experience of watching it. For example, that climactic fight drags on for too long with little change or sense of real danger. I’ll agree with Kalat that the musical elements were also misjudged throughout the movie; the opening number is muddled, nonsensical, and unfunny.

But Altman’s overcrowded sensibility isn’t always the negative that Kalat says it is; the “I yam what I yam” number begins quite appropriately, with Popeye’s feelings of being powerless and ignored symbolized by being literally unseen for parts of his own identity-declaring song. His marginalization in the first part is a counterpoint to his front-and-center place in the last part. Again, the format is perfectly fine; the problem is in all the mundane elements of execution that go wrong, such as the song ending just as it’s come into full swing, and the message being a little off-mark for the action of taking Swee’Pea back.

Maybe it’s my modern sensibility talking, since I’m used to the sequel deals being made before the first movie is even out, but to me it seems like POPEYE ends in a place where a King-Features-inspired story could easily begin. POPEYE 2 could be set in a kinder, gentler Sweethaven that Popeye needs to defend, lest enemies like Bluto and the Sea Hag drag it back down to its prior state. (I can imagine a funny sequence where Bluto tries to sneak back into town under the alias “Brutus” but is quickly recognized.)

Anyway. I really did like Kalat’s review – I just felt the need to express those thoughts. Mostly I’m just happy to think a little about a childhood movie that hasn’t crossed my mind in years. “What were you gonna call ‘im, ‘Baby Oyl’?” Hee hee hee hee.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 18, 2010 4:56 pm

Despite statements that is was a huge bomb, the box office figures show that was not necessarily so. It grossed just a shade under $50 million at $49,823,037 and was the 12th highest grossing movie of 1980, finishing behind The Empire Strikes Back, 9 to 5, Stir Crazy, Airplane!, Any Which Way You Can, Private Benjamin, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Blue Lagoon, The Blues Brothers and Ordinary People. In turn, it grossed more than Urban Cowboy, The Shining, Caddyshack, Friday the 13th, The Elephant Man, Flash Gordon (another comic strip-to-movie movie), Raging Bull, Xanadu and Fame. That’s pretty impressive. In adjusted gross it’s surely over $100 million. In relation to expectations however, probably a bomb.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 18, 2010 4:56 pm

Despite statements that is was a huge bomb, the box office figures show that was not necessarily so. It grossed just a shade under $50 million at $49,823,037 and was the 12th highest grossing movie of 1980, finishing behind The Empire Strikes Back, 9 to 5, Stir Crazy, Airplane!, Any Which Way You Can, Private Benjamin, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Blue Lagoon, The Blues Brothers and Ordinary People. In turn, it grossed more than Urban Cowboy, The Shining, Caddyshack, Friday the 13th, The Elephant Man, Flash Gordon (another comic strip-to-movie movie), Raging Bull, Xanadu and Fame. That’s pretty impressive. In adjusted gross it’s surely over $100 million. In relation to expectations however, probably a bomb.

Posted By December Links : The Shadow Cabaret : December 26, 2010 12:21 am

[...] Morlock “davidkalat” returns with a valentine to Jules Feiffer and Robert Altman’s much-maligned 1980 musical Popeye. [...]

Posted By December Links : The Shadow Cabaret : December 26, 2010 12:21 am

[...] Morlock “davidkalat” returns with a valentine to Jules Feiffer and Robert Altman’s much-maligned 1980 musical Popeye. [...]

Posted By Gayle : January 7, 2011 3:33 pm

Great breakdown on the problems with this film. I saw it when first released and managed to sit through till the bitter end! I also have to correct the notion about the early b&w Popeye cartoons’ availability. They were on TV regularly in the 1960s when I was growing up. When color TV became more common, then you saw that some were b&w and others were in color.

Posted By Gayle : January 7, 2011 3:33 pm

Great breakdown on the problems with this film. I saw it when first released and managed to sit through till the bitter end! I also have to correct the notion about the early b&w Popeye cartoons’ availability. They were on TV regularly in the 1960s when I was growing up. When color TV became more common, then you saw that some were b&w and others were in color.

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