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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 25.68%
Average: 9.46%
Pretty Bad: 13.51%
Total Crap: 16.22%

3 reviews, 56 user ratings

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Popeye (1980)
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by Rob Gonsalves

2 stars

Reading a detailed book about the troubled production of Robert Altman's "Popeye" might be more entertaining than watching the movie. All the ingredients are there, but the result is an alternately overcooked and undercooked stew with no dominant flavor you taste everything and you taste nothing.

Jules Feiffer's script has been said to match the ramshackle seaside tone of the original E.C. Segar comic strip, titled Thimble Theatre until Popeye showed up ten years into its run and took over. The movie, though, seems inspired more by the Fleischer Brothers cartoons of the '30s; there's a lot of slapstick and cartoon effects. It's also abominably cluttered and headache-inducing. Altman, famous for his ensemble casts and overlapping plots, may have thought he could work the same magic in the story's setting of Sweethaven. But, despite the surplus of characters, there are really only two stars, Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl; most everyone else is just noisy wallpaper. And there's really just one plot, and a meandering, unfocused one at that.

Popeye comes to Sweethaven in search of his long-lost pappy. He meets Olive, who won't give him the time of day until someone drops a baby, Swee'pea, in their laps, at which point the script seems to oblige them to decide to fall in love; we certainly don't feel it. Olive is given one beautiful number, "He Needs Me," and while the lyrics (by Harry Nilsson) aren't anything great, Duvall turns it into a starlight bliss-out. Duvall is immaculately cast; everyone is, really. Of the large cast, the two actors (besides Duvall) who really nail the comic-strip spirit are Donald Moffat as Sweethaven's monomaniacal tax collector and a young Bill Irwin, in his first film, as Ham Gravy, who contorts amusingly. The cast isn't the problem; even Robin Williams, who spent years being self-deprecating about Popeye, plays the role with an antic side-of-the-mouth wit.

The problem is that nothing builds to anything; things just keep happening. This was Altman's first stab at a mainstream movie since his breakthrough a decade earlier with M*A*S*H; he had spent the intervening ten years working on his own stubborn terms, and sometimes it worked (Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and sometimes it didn't (pretty much everything else during the '70s). So you've got Altman the toking iconoclast at the wheel of a $20 million kiddie musical financed by two studios and produced by Robert Evans. It could've been a masterpiece or it could've been a balls-out disaster either way would've been interesting, but it's neither, really. It has moments, mostly actors' moments. But aside from the cosmetic attribute of a community of people skittering in and out of frame, it doesn't feel like an Altman film. He resists the conventional narrative beats but isn't free to put anything in their place.

I harbor a small degree of nostalgic affection for Popeye. I first saw it when I was ten and a fan of the cartoons (and of Robin Williams Mork and Mindy was one of my favorite shows back then). I still have the soundtrack on vinyl somewhere around here, but other than "He Needs Me" so good Paul Thomas Anderson stole it for Punch-Drunk Love I wish the songs still held any charm for me. They range from undistinguished to downright abrasive. Revisiting the film thirty years later doesn't do it any favors; a lot of it is klutzier than you may remember it being, and it leads to a wretched climax involving the fakest-looking octopus since Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster.

Whose movie is this, really? It reads like more of a Robert Evans film than a Robert Altman film. The strain of the budget and the responsibility of delivering a big Christmastime blockbuster show in almost every scene. The movie seldom breathes it's hectic and irritating, except when Altman is allowed to hold his camera on Shelley Duvall (who'd worked with him five times before) and let her do her Shelley Duvall thing. The film's Popeye hates spinach, which may be Feiffer's nod to the Segar strips, where Popeye seldom if ever ate the stuff (that was more a trademark of the cartoons). But in the movie, coming after fifty years of Popeye gulping down spinach in the toons, it comes across as confusing and needlessly revisionist. Was this made for E.C. Segar scholars or for kids?

"Popeye" came out around the same time as "Flash Gordon," and the two films share considerable similarities both based on classic comic strips previously adapted into other media; both scored by pop musicians; both lavishly art-directed but in the important ways they couldn't be more different. Both show excess achievable only with serious money, but "Flash Gordon" winks at its roots and itself and has fun, while "Popeye" seems to fight itself to the finish until the money runs out and it peters out to that sad, sad octopus climax. More than anything, "Popeye" seems to want to be more and less than what it is at any rate, anything other than what it is. It may be of interest to Altman acolytes who kill themselves trying to make it fit thematically and logically into his portfolio, but at this point who else would be interested?

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originally posted: 02/11/10 15:24:01
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User Comments

7/27/13 Fire With Fire Where Altman proved he had no talent for live action-cartoon-musicals. 1 stars
4/09/13 Jerod Freitag My mother and I saw this in the theater multiple times. Loved it then, love it today. 5 stars
10/22/12 Der Olli This movie is a beautiful mess! 5 stars
7/15/12 G Washington It has a terribly annoying sensibility. That's why people hate it. Robin repels. 1 stars
2/20/11 Ark Still have guilty pleasures watching this-I'm supposed to be grown up! 4 stars
5/02/10 Amy Green If James Lipton likes it, why not? Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall are perfect. 4 stars
3/03/10 Richard Brandt That cast, that director, that fidelity to Fleischer...should have been perfect! 3 stars
3/02/10 Nicole Yarbrough I saw this as a child & recently viewed it on Youtube & had to buy a copy for my kids! 5 stars
2/17/10 Darryl I had to write a paper on this movie, after watching it 2 times, i love it 4 stars
6/25/09 art THIS AND FLASH GORDON we're A DOUBLE FEATURE,when i saw this in 1980,DON"T ASK! 1 stars
3/03/09 Jack Sommersby Unwatcahble and grating and boring to boot. 1 stars
2/19/09 Elaine It was the most boring, stupid waste of film that I have ever seen. Thank god there is no 2 1 stars
7/20/08 John Millheim Its a little quacky, kids might like it 3 stars
1/23/08 Ruth B Horrid: boring music, annoying characters. They wrecked Popeye. 1 stars
7/18/06 David Cohen More like the comic than the cartoon, never got the respect it deserved, very well cast! 4 stars
5/08/06 mr.mike bizarre 4 stars
2/26/06 Rocky Unwatchable garbage. Boring, inane, cheap-looking, amatuerish crap. 1 stars
2/23/06 William Hill Yeah its a little cheezy,but its still one one my favorite movies! 5 stars
1/25/06 LP Quagmire A tremendously sexy romp. 5 stars
12/04/05 Bas Definately worth seeing, if only for the mixed feelings it delivers. You have to love RW! 4 stars
8/06/05 Keisha I absolutely love this movie. I always try to make time to watch it when it comes on! 5 stars
1/30/05 Jeff Anderson I saw this on a drive-in double bill with CADDYSHACK. Robin Williams is a perfect Popeye! 5 stars
11/14/04 Charles W Cook Saw it on TV years ago, then the tape, now the dvd 5 stars
7/23/04 guyver 4 love the move 3 stars
6/22/04 Joe In true Popeye accent: "I likes this movink' pikture. It representinks Popeye very well!" 5 stars
6/03/04 Angel A bit slow, very strange, but visually perfect. I like. 3 stars
5/18/04 Idiot's Mouth you must be kidding. irritating, slow, boring, and grotesque. NOT a good time frolic. 2 stars
5/17/04 Roy Chapman jr. Robin Williams is okay but I frown on musicals 2 stars
5/17/04 y2mckay sorry Scott, the one time 20 years ago was enough. Altman is such a fucking bore. 1 stars
11/24/03 Dick Riker One of my under-rated favorites! 4 stars
7/31/03 mickey not bad, but an acquired taste 3 stars
7/29/03 Dick Metafora Re-release Popeye! Nilsson's score is genius! 5 stars
6/12/03 Ken Haraldson Great Classic with Robin Williams!! 5 stars
4/17/03 Jon "Thumb the Toad" Lyrik Boy do I love this movie... 5 stars
4/16/03 Marisa Monroe WOW! 5 stars
4/13/03 Jesse Parsells bizarre but great... lots of fun 4 stars
4/12/03 Richard Eckman Terrific movie---great childhood memories, but still watchable and enjoyable adult fare! 5 stars
12/19/02 katsat I loved this movie, too, for the same quirky reasons as Jon. 5 stars
10/14/02 Charles Tatum God, Altman is such a hack 2 stars
7/09/02 Larry Page This has been one of my favorite films since it came out. I love the songs. 5 stars
6/02/02 Scott Weinberg I'll delete this rating if I ever write a review, but I LOVE this movie! 5 stars
2/21/02 Xaver Williams did a great job! 4 stars
1/01/02 Monster W. Kung Unwatchable crap. 1 stars
12/06/01 KMG This movie is pretty damn good 4 stars
9/04/01 Butterbean A shitty movie that I liked as a kid. Serves for childhood memories purpose. 3 stars
8/09/01 Mr. Hat This movie sucks donkey balls. 1 stars
8/04/01 Matt I admit, it is awful, but for some reason I can't stop watching it. 5 stars
5/06/01 Geoff Kushnick A classic -- not everyone knows that yet, though. Perfect casting, enchanting music. 5 stars
4/03/01 Andrew Carden It depends on if you think that Robin is a children's entertainer. 4 stars
12/26/00 Turtle An adaption that lives up to what it adapts. Funny and great! 4 stars
6/24/00 Aaron White Brilliant design, but Altman's trademark atmosphere steps on Feiffer's clever script. 3 stars
10/26/99 Karahde Khan I LOVE it, don't ask me why. I just love it not as a fun bad movie but as a truly good one. 5 stars
12/12/98 Miss Stress hey, this may not be much of a movie but it's got a song about a guy being LARGE, haha 4 stars
12/08/98 PirateGirl Shelley Duval was born to play this part 2 stars
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  12-Dec-1980 (PG)
  DVD: 24-Jun-2003


  02-Feb-1981 (G)

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