Review: Popeye (1980)

Popeye opens by striking an unexpected tone for the movie adaptation of a cartoon franchise. If you peer beneath its surface, the film has both depth and darkness.

Review: Popeye (1980)

Popeye opens with credits rolling over a stormy sea, stark thunder strikes the only sound as large cartoon type appears on screen introducing the cast. Popeye can be spotted in a small rowing boat, lost in menacing waters as he rows with all his might. It strikes an unexpected tone for the movie adaptation of a cartoon franchise, but – as might be expected with Robert Altman at the helm – promises something more than a simplistic attempt to deliver a blockbuster to the film studio. And if you peer beneath its surface, Popeye has both depth and darkness. It's a bombastic and fun cartoon romp, but also a biting and cynical critique of human nature and corrupting forces underpinning capitalist society. This duality – the shadow of darkness cast lightly over the film, and sombre undertones flowing quietly through it, while its light side drives forward with a wackiness and manic, frenzied, near-violent energy, is key to appreciating what is often written off as a commercially and artistically disappointing entry in Robert Altman's filmography.

At its heart, Popeye tells the story of Popeye and Olive Oyl as victims in a hostile world where violence and exploitation rule. Popeye, a homeless, one-eyed sailor who was abandoned as a child, sails the world alone in a dinghy, searching for his father. The moment he sets foot on Sweethaven he is accosted by the town's taxman, who tallies up a list of fines he must pay ("docking tax," "new in town tax," "leaving your junk around the wharf tax"). Popeye then heads into town, where the green grocer attempts to overcharge him for carrots he "doesn't feel like selling," and the town's distrustful inhabitants gawk at him, whispering amongst themselves and putting up their "closed" signs as he enquires about accommodation. Finally Popeye comes across the Oyl family, who offer him a room and board, a combative Olive Oyl showing him to his new quarters. Popeye meets the extended family at dinner, where Olive defends her soon-to-be fiancé Bluto, accusing her family of financially exploiting him, and storms off as the other distracted diners vacate the table leaving Popeye sitting alone, unserved. Popeye looks down at his empty plate:

"Hmm, never good to be too full, I guess."

Olive's hostility stems from being pressured by her family into accepting Bluto's marriage proposal, which is expected to be forthcoming. In fact, the family has arranged an "engagement party" for Bluto to pop the question in front of everyone. Bluto is a brute who dwarfs everyone around him physically and enforces the law for the mysterious Commodore using intimidation and violence, amongst other things dictating tax rates and screaming over the rooftops of Sweethaven "LIGHTS OUT!" each night at curfew time, and is known to have accumulated significant wealth in his position. In a confused state, Olive finds herself defending Bluto to her family, insisting the financial privileges afforded to the family through their association with Bluto is evidence of their taking advantage of him, and that is why she cannot accept his proposal: to protect Bluto from her family. This state of self-delusion in an abusive relationship, wonderfully articulated physically in the way Olive changes directions and moves in unpredictable ways as if in a constant state of dizziness, leads her to double down increasingly when defending Bluto until she finds herself attempting to articulate her romantic feelings for him to her friends in song.

Put on the spot, she struggles to expound on Bluto's qualities beyond the common refrain "he's large" (the double entendre subtly but comically highlighted by Olive's giggling friends). Olive awakens to the reality of her relationship with Bluto mid-song, and starts packing things into a bag when her friends aren't looking. Olive may feel the neeed to defend Bluto publicly, but is actually desparate to escape. She sneaks out of her bedroom window and flees onto the street, finding herself instinctively walking towards the harbour where she stumbles upon Popeye, who is alone at a town crossroads after being shunned earlier at the Oyl household's party (labelled a "smutty sailor townie" and ostracised based on appearances).

Popeye and Olive share in common qualities that make them outsiders in their society, which has produced in both of them a tragically delusional state where they attempt to attach their love onto unfit subjects (Popeye to his father, and Olive to Bluto). The beauty of their relationship, we come to learn as we see it develop, is that they are able to unveil their own self-delusions to each other. When Popeye attempts to regale Olive with loving tales of the father he spends his life in search of, a forced grin perfectly painted on the face of Robin Williams as he recalls how his father loved to throw him up in the air, but was never there when he came back down, Olive stands silently baffled, refusing to humour Popeye. Later in the plot she tells him plainly:

"Your father is a rat, a crook, a kidnapper, and a bad father, and more!"

Similarly when the taxman takes a sudden about-turn after noticing Olive, Popeye questions and presses her on the privilege she is shown, noticing the corruption stemming from her association with Bluto. She tries to turn a blind eye and feign ignorance to the favouritism she has become accustomed to, but Popeye maintains his cyncicism. Later when Olive goes along with her family's attempt to "exploit Sweetpea for ill-gotten gains," profiting from the baby's ability to predict winners at "the races" (which, hilariously and perhaps allegorically, is a set of mechanical horses running along rails inside a brothel), Popeye acts decisively and moves Sweetpea out of the Oyl house to protect him from further financial exploitation, defining it as child abuse. Olive finds herself seeking out Popeye shortly thereafter, just as he is realising Sweetpea not only needs a "mother" (a role Popeye progressively claims as his own), but Olive as his "father," leading to what is the emotional centrepiece of the film and the best song of its soundtrack: "He Needs Me."

Original songs written by Harry Neilson anchor the narrative. They have a beautiful simplicity and efficiency in message and are well-placed within the story, spotlighting certain moments without disrupting the plot. Along with "She Loves Me," standouts include "Sail With Me" and "Swee' Pea's Lullaby." Comical pieces include the wry innuendo of the aforementioned "He's Large" and "Everything Is Food,"[1] both of which are memorable and funny. "I Yam What I Yam" mixes seamlessly into one of the film's most enjoyable and feverously energetic scenes, with Popeye posing an existential question to himself about his place in the world, and coming to a euphoric epiphany about his nature and value system.

The songs feel seamlessly stitched into the narrative, with actors often slowly ramping up from dialogue into song and back down, and Altman's atypical decision to have actors sing some of the songs "live" on set may have helped towards creating the sense that the film progresses without switching modes on the audience during key moments. The musical pieces are not diversions into spectacle, and are less about dazzling displays of singing and dancing than enhancing certain scenes and moments by imparting them with extra energy, emotion, or significance. It's a terrific use of soundtrack in a film that didn't need to incorporate musical elements, but did to great effect.

One of the film's most notable accomplishments, aside from Altman's sly infusion of darkness and depth, is in how it manages to convincingly recreate the wacky and unreal cartoon world of Popeye in live action film. Probably this should be an impossible feat, but that it is achieved without the use of CGI, and with almost no special effects, is remarkable. The film boasts an enormous physical set to recreate the town of Sweethaven, creating a powerful sense of location the viewer can sink into and enjoy spending time in. The film set stands to this day in Malta, named Popeye Village and attracting tourists each year -- a testament to its charming, magical qualities.

In concert with the film set, a sense of super-reality is achieved through a simple and deft combination of filmmaking fundamentals -- skilled editing and use of sound effects, a fitting colour palette, a few key props (such as Popeye's oversized forearms) and simple visual techniques (such as Bluto "seeing red" or "turning yellow," which work terrifically in the context of a cartoon world), and perhaps at the top of the list, superb casting.

The performances of Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in the starring roles are stellar. Both actors don't just nail the distinctive, unusual voices of their characters, but their mannerisms and gestures, and their seemingly impossible ways of moving. Shelley Duvall seems to be made out of jelly, and when Robin Williams dances it's as if he is set on springs that could launch him a hundred feet into the air in an instant. Both actors excude the energy of cartoon characters, vibration lines all but visibly radiating from them onscreen. Yet instead of seeming over-the-top and caricature Popeye and Olive Oyl share a number of truly heartfelt moments on screen, and create an emotionally sincere impression with the viewer. The relationship between them and baby Sweetpea is geniunely touching. Paul L. Smith also perfectly captures the character of Bluto, creating a menacing, terrifyingly simpleminded presence with his physicality – whether silently looming, growling quietly in a corner, or bursting into rage and shaking the surroundings with his booming voice.

For all its charms, Popeye was often critiqued and labelled a failure at the time of its release. This may in large part be the result of a weak sequence towards the end of the film, starting from the moment the cast sets sail from Sweethaven and the film seems to switch gears to deliver a "big finale." The immersive and magical qualities the film has established seem to immediately weaken, and the film takes a jolting shift of tone which begins to feel more like a cinematic carnival ride, a superficial spectacle. It doesn't help that the finale centres around a battle with an octopus that is phony looking enough to be distracting. It is the only notable special effect in the film, and it subtracts more than it adds. This final sequence, as relatively short as it is, has the potential to impair the impression the viewer is left with of the whole, coming so close towards the end of the film.

Fortunately the last scene is a strong one, with Robin Williams dancing in an amped-up state of euphoric self-understanding and jubilation as he sings Popeye's signature tune, "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man." It is an excellent note to roll the credits on, with a shot of Bluto swimming off in retreat into calm waters -- a callback to the opening shot of Popeye sailing into Sweethaven in the midst of a storm, giving a striking visual contrast between Olive's two very different suitors. Popeye has experienced an ultimate epiphany of self-understanding. Victorious over Bluto, he can now answer the existential question of "Who am I?" more resoundingly than before. Able to assert himself confidently, and sure of his ability to defend himself, he warns potential abusers of the future to take heed:

I'm one tough Gazookus
That hates all Palookas
That ain't on the up and square.
I bish 'em and bosh 'em
And always out roughs 'em
And none of 'em gets nowhere.
If anyone dares to risk my "Fisk",
It's "Boff" an' it's "Wham" un'erstan'?
So keep "Good Be-hav-or"
That's your one life saver
With Popeye the Sailor Man.

Beneath the simple absurdity of this song it also serves as a critique of excessive consumerism: in particular its morally corrupting and financially endangering potential to endebt those who indulge in it. This is captured by Wimpy's refrain "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today," and his refusal to "repay" Popeye by listening to his story, instead walking away from the table as soon as he finishes eating the burger Popeye gives him. ↩︎

James Lanternman writes movie reviews, essays, and moonlit thoughts. You can reach him at [email protected].

Previously… Review: Dark Blood (2012)