Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Popeye - 1980

"Popeye" - 1980
Dir. by Robert Altman - 1 hr. 54 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

When a beloved actor or director passes away, I'm hardly the only one who wants to delve back into more pleasant memories of their work.  But, hilariously, the move to cloud media means that you're never going to get to watch the movie that you really want to watch, in order to pay proper homage to the deceased.  Robin Williams was a ferociously talented comedian and dramatic actor, with probably half a dozen movies that instantly pop into mind.  But does Netflix or Hulu have "Good Will Hunting" available?  Or "Aladdin?"  "Good Morning, Vietnam?"  Even "The World According to Garp?"  "Popeye," however, was available, and that's what I decided to watch.

Popeye (Robin Williams), who is a deformed sailor with a speech impediment, has arrived in a coastal town called Sweethaven, in search of his father, who stepped out on him at a very young age.  So far, the search hasn't been going well, but Popeye stays upbeat.  Eventually, the townspeople stop cowering from the outsider, and Popeye is able to rent a room in a boarding house, where he meets Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall), who looks like a pipe cleaner in a dress.  Olive's fella, Bluto (Paul L. Smith), is a huge, blustery sort prone to violence, and doesn't much like Popeye.  Eventually, a random baby pops up, and Olive and Popeye take responsibility for it, which also makes Bluto mad.

If you take this film completely out of any context, there's nearly nothing that makes any sense whatsoever.  Every single decision as to the creation of "Popeye" seems as if it was drawn out of a hat full of really bad ideas.  And it didn't have to be that way; watching the intro credits, and seeing names like director Robert Altman, screenwriter Jules Pfeiffer, and musician Harry Nilsson being involved, it's clear that it's not a bunch of bums who have cobbled together a movie.  And that doesn't even take into account Robin Williams (although he wasn't Robin Williams at this point) and Shelley Duvall.  There is genuine talent here, and it's invariably pointed in the wrongest direction possible, every single time.

I have a difficult time wrapping my head around the notion of making an adaptation of a comic strip (by E.C. Segar, to give due), and doing so in the one method that cartooning can't imply: a musical.  According to the WikiGodHead, "Popeye" was sort of a consolation prize after Paramount lost the bidding war to adapt a Broadway version of "Annie."  They already had the rights to "Popeye," and wanted to do something in the same vein (which is still psychotically stupid).  I am very aware that there wasn't a deep playbook on how to successfully adapt comics characters to the screen at this point in time, but turning comics into a musical...  I don't even know.  What's even more bizarre is that the characters are costumed like the strips were drawn.

Popeye (and all of the characters) have bell-bottomed legs and enormous shoes, a look the movie duplicated!

When comics fans want to complain about a somewhat unfaithful adaptation of their favorite characters, keep in mind that this is what can happen when you hew too closely to the original designs (and the quirks of whichever cartoonist created the stuff in the first place, which in this case would have to do with the "bigfoot" style of cartooning that quickly fell out of favor in the intervening years between the strips and the film).

There is also the issue of having a lead character that mumbles constantly, the heavy reliance of slapstick humor (although this was also faithful to the original, spirited comic strips), and Vaudeville-style verbal humor.  This is a mountain of weird decisions!!!  I will admit freely that I'm not much of a fan of musicals (at least ones that Trey Parker and Matt Stone aren't responsible for creating), but I also didn't care for most of the song and dance numbers.  There is one exception to this, the beautiful, charming, "He Needs Me."

That song captures the giddy silliness of being gobsmacked by love, and it's even better being performed by a character that's always trying to keep people at arm's length for the course of the film.  It's also the one triumph of the film, the one that makes me not want to judge the rest of it so harshly.

But all in all, "Popeye" is just weird.  It doesn't make any sense, even when you can make sense of the dialogue, it's not that funny, the songs are mostly not that great.  It seems like the product of a conscious decision on the part of the film-makers' to screw everything up as hard as they possibly can.  I couldn't make heads nor tails of the vast majority of it.  Robin Williams worked very hard to pull off something that was doomed to failure (possibly in spite of that fact), and his energy (along with the "He Needs Me" segment) are the sole reasons I can think of to recommend "Popeye."  Otherwise, I think literally everyone involved here did drastically better work, and if Netflix or Hulu had been more cooperative, that's the stuff I would have been watching instead.

1.5 / 5 - Streaming

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