Favorite Musical Scene Theatre: Popeye (1980)

Robert Altman’s oddest and most radical film arguably remains his big studio musical version of POPEYE, starring Robin Williams in his film debut as the titular one-eyed sea dog, one of the great casting coups in movie history — whatever one thinks of the movie. Altman might have seemed a most unusual choice to helm a cartoon musical Christmas spectacular, but given that E.C. Segar’s character is a distinct part of Americana folklore, it’s no surprise Altman and screenwriter Jules Feiffer wanted to put their own subversive spin on Popeye (he even hates spinach). Which they did to the dismay of some, and though the film made an impressive 50 million dollars, it was perceived as a failure, likely due to the critical confusion at Robert Altman shooting scenes with rubber arms and squids.

I saw this opening day and enjoyed it as a child, even though I was underwhelmed by the lack of choreographed spectacle. Altman’s improvisatory style is an uneasy mix here, his trademark sound design apropos for Popeye’s mumblings, but when you want the film to kick in with cartoon pizazz, the intimacy dulls some of the big moments. Still, the casting is pitch perfect, notably Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl, truly born to the role. You have to adore Harry Nilsson’s score, primed as he was to do a proper musical, and in this scene, Popeye has his moment of late 70’s self-realization in a gambling hall to the tune of “I Yam What I Yam.” I love William’s mumbled monologues and even the make-up is terrific; I still think this is his greatest film performance. He’s Popeye, The Sailor Man!

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25 Responses to “Favorite Musical Scene Theatre: Popeye (1980)”

  1. Though I neither agree with you that this is Altman’s most radical, nor that it’s Williams best performance, I still really enjoyed reading your article because nobody talks about this film much. I was a movie critic on radio when it came out, and I liked it too.

    Radical Altman : Three Women
    Best Williams: Moscow on the Hudson (maybe Good Will Hunting)

    • christian Says:

      That’s why I prefaced my comment with “arguably” — let the great POPEYE debate begin! THREE WOMEN is probably the most radical, but it’s still experimental — this is a big studio family film so Altman as director is more radical than the more obscurely designed THREE WOMEN…

      Thanks for coming by!

  2. I absolutley loved this movie growing up lol

  3. I used to watch the cartoon but I have not watch the film. I will see soon.

  4. this movie is amazing. i can’t believe people think of it as one of the worst piece of filmmaking – i mean, it s not because it bombed that it s bad. williams is amazing : the diner scene with olive’s family is pure madness. the art direction is simply gorgeous, great score, great songs – sometimes even heartbreaking, great performances. the slapstick can sometimes feels tedious, but it participates to the overall onirical feeling of the experience. the only thing that i feel out of place is the baby popeye.

    i still think altman’s brewster mcloud is his weirdest, but this one is a milestone.

    • christian Says:

      The dinner scene is great. And Sweet’pea is like the most adorable cine-baby ever. All the casting is perfect, though Pauline Kael really panned Ray Walston as Popeye’s pop. I thought he was great.

      And yes, BREWSTER MCLOUD is weird weird weird — coming as it did from the pen of William SKIDOO Canon, who hated what Altman did to his script. I saw a fun screening with Bud Cort at LACMA a few years ago.

      Word for the day: “Onirical”

  5. So long as there’s dreck like RUSH HOUR 3, this film will never be one of the worst pieces of filmmaking.

    Like yourself, I saw this in theaters as a child and loved it. I haven’t seen it in years and really should watch it again as I’m a huge Altman fan. I don’t know if I would say this Altman’s most radical film, that might be the bizarro OC & STIGGS, which is the man’s oddball take on ’80s teen comedies.

    As for Robin Williams’ best performance, hands down, THE FISHER KING, which still allowed him to be manic (naked in Central Park) but also offered some great poignant moments (I love the scene where he recounts the tale of the Fisher King) and really displayed a kind of vulnerability and pain that he hadn’t before.

    • christian Says:

      I knew some folks would be dropping OC AND STIGGS on me, but I still say this is his most radical the same way A STRAIGHT STORY is David Lynch’s most experimental studio film. I have to check out OC again, which came from a National Lampoon short story.

      FISHER KING I’ve never cared for at all. It’s my least favorite Gilliam though I know it’s beloved. Williams magic hobo with a heart of gold is…I don’t know.

      But I do think he’s great in MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON and GOOD WILL HUNTING.

      • jkeeling Says:

        Williams is also great in The Birdcage.

      • I agree with you ’bout THE STRAIGHT STORY. I still couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it on the big screen and saw that big ol’ Disney logo coming up before a Lynch film. Talk about yer WTF moments?!!

        My least fave Gilliam film is prolly JABERWOCKY. Could never get into that one. As for MOSCOW, yeah, that’s good and I did like him in GOOD WILL HUNTING despite the Cosby sweater attire but it also led to an Oscar and his downfall, role-wise. He hasn’t done much good since. Altho, DEATH TO SMOOCHY is a guilty pleasure.

        • i have to give williams a shout out here for what to me is his most convincing perf (and he’s had a few gems over the years), which happens to be post-‘hunting’, as the photo-mart tech and lonely, delusional stalker seymour parish in ‘one hour photo’.

          williams usually looks like some variation of himself in most films (and in the back of my mind i never really forget i’m watching ‘robin williams’) but the character of seymour parish is so non ‘stock williams’, after a time i forget i’m watching robin williams and get caught up in his subtle and deeply disturbing parish.

          he absolutely HAUNTS me with his achingly sad, lonesome, obsessive, quietly desperate ‘non-existent’ mad man scrambling to retain the facade of ‘normalcy’ even as he sinks deeper into psychosis, absolutely top shelf from williams and something i doubt he will ever replicate again in his career (i think his turn in ‘insomnia’ was a far less successful stab at something similar). but the aching loneliness of seymour parish will always be with me.

          • christian Says:

            And he’s s’posd to be awsome in WORLD’S GREATEST DAD — which I need to see pronto as he was hilarious in Bobcat’s first classic, SHAKES HE CLOWN.

        • there is this one hilarious scene in jabberwocky when the religious zealots fight for the right to be ignited and propelled as sacrifice on the holy catapult. that made me laugh for years. the rest of the movie is a blur. great monster though ! too bad the “medieval jaws” idea has fallen short..

          Fisher king is still one of my fav gilliam movies. the imaginarium was a kind of new retelling of it, through a time bandits lense. great stuff imho.

  6. what a great movie i liked him as popeye

  7. christian Says:

    dave: Haven’t seen JABBERWOCKY in a long moon, and only have vaguely unsettling memories as it captured that darker tone of HOLY GRAIL. Have to revisit.

    leah: Yes, TIME BANDITS is my favorite Gilliam. What imagination and a grand Sean Connery performance that I think helped resurrect his movie star stature. And poor David Rappaport, who’s great in the film. I love his tense relationship with Kevin; he treats him as an equal partner in crime. And John Cleese’s condescending Robin Hood…and Shelly Duvall — tho I don’t like her and Palin’s segments. A blast seeing TB in the theater opening weekend…

    • absolutely! ‘time bandits’ is the ultimate family movie, so imaginatively designed and executed, it works brilliantly for both children and adults and has such fun blending ‘history’ with adventure, action, comedy and genuine creeps, there’s not a single thing about it i don’t adore

    • Yeah, I fond memories of seeing TIME BANDITS when it first came out. As a kid, I was blown away by the whole spectacle and scale of the film. It still holds up and I love the grunginess of the film, the lived-in look. I also love that you can now buy a reproduction of the iconic map. Very cool.

  8. POPEYE rules.

    Actually one of my favorite Altmans. Great movie.

    Shelly Duvall had the best 1980 of anyone ever.

  9. […] in a dystopic tundra? Or the cosmic twining of the dream logical, THREE WOMEN (1977)? I’ve claimed that POPEYE (1980) is perhaps the oddest man out by nature of its comic strip musical base, but I could also make a […]

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