Popeye (1980):

A scratchy Fleischers snippet kicks things off, before Robert Altman cuts to the Mediterranean location for the live-action switch -- his quasi-mainstream entrance into the '80s, but also his Our Town, his A Woman Is a Woman, and his reimagining of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Popeye (Robin Williams) is McCabe, of course, docking into the wharf-town of Sweethaven, the sailor's half-heard mutterings and bulging forearms only two of countless cartoon gags seen and heard in the opening, laid out in teeming long-shot, mostly. The gambling den-whorehouse is the local "house of ill repuke," although the hero here prefers refuge at the Oyls' residence, where Olive (Shelley Duvall) flutters about her upcoming engagement to Bluto (Paul L. Smith), the burg's Goliath. Bluto demolishes the house as Popeye and Olive coo over Swee'pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt) outside, the toddler they found in a basket; the two walk back to the engagement party, baby in hand, so cut to Bluto's livid POV, the whole screen suddenly painted crimson. Wimpy (Paul Dooley) mooches hamburgers and promises payment next Tuesday, which in Altman's E.C. Segar deconstruction points to the exploitation of Sweethaven; critique brought in from the '70s, along with a feel for concealed political oppression and absent fathers, here one and the same in the Commodore, who turns out to be Popeye's long-missing Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). Jules Feiffer, already experienced with the comic strip, provides punning text for the characters' dialogue-balloons, but Altman frames the panels to his own liking, his slapstick staging deliberately oafish to heighten the gap between ink on page and flesh on the screen. Contradictorily enough, the dissonance remains sweet, keyed into the plaintive pitch of Harry Nilsson's score (worth alone for "He Needs Me"), and fully in synch with the magical stylization of the still-raw Williams and Duvall, who's been Olive Oyl since Brewster McCloud. Incidentally, the movie supplied my maiden experience with cinema, with comic chaos, a low-tech octopus, and a spinach-fueled torpedo inaugurating my torrid affair with the medium. Cinematography by Giuseppe Rottuno. With Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, MacIntire Dixon, Allan Nicholls, Roberta Maxwell, Bill Irwin, Donovan Scott, and Linda Hunt.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home