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Saturday, 16 July 2016

Retro Movie Review: Popeye (1980) #RobinWilliams

Cast: Robin Williams, Shirley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul L. Smith, Paul Dooley
Genre: Musical Comedy Fantasy 
Estimated Worldwide Gross: $49,823,037

Trivia: most of Robin Williams's muttered original Popeye voice was inaudible once filming was unwrapped & he had to re-dub much of the dialogue

Plot: Based on the long-running comic strip created by E.C Segar (and less so on the animated cartoons created by Max Fleischer which were decidedly different in approach), Popeye follows adventures of the the sailor man with the mighty arms (played by Robin Williams in his first major film role) in the seaside community of Sweethaven

'Had This Film Been Based On The Cartoons, It Would Have Worked So Much Better'

When news of the popular cartoon, Popeye being brought to life as a live-action film surfaced during the late 1970s, I imagined a lot of people expected it to be like the cartoons with lots of slapstick and out of this world moments of the self-titled character, kicking ass after downing a can of spinach. Not to mention also, it would be fun as well. Unfortunately, this is not entirely the case with this effort from 1980.

& for Robin Williams's first major feature film outing, he chose Robert Altman's Popeye and one of the most iconic cartoon characters to portray as. The success of Mork and Mindy had already made Williams a household name and thus, his transition from the small screen to the big screen as an alien from Ork with a child-like, innocent tone to a spinach-eating, animated character that children of the early 1920's to beyond that people recognise today, was a feat he had to tackle. The film was moderately successful in U.S theaters, though like with all of Robin's earlier movie efforts prior to Good Morning, Vietnam, it never amounted to anything of the scale of his latter and far more successful movies that had presided after it, years later.  

This was way before he hit the dizzy heights as Peter Pan in Hook, where again he played a character, which whilst was based on the novel, is also a fictional character in the Disney animated movie. 

Popeye has a good cast, the actors were perfectly cast in their roles, so why didn't I take to this film as much as I wished I did? Answer: it's because this film was based on the comics than the cartoons. It feels more like an art-house production- that there is an artistic/stylistic Avant-Garde approach that has been galvanised here, which also doubles up as a musical. 

I've never been a staunch fan of Robert Altman's style: it's weird-ish but it has no sense of logic or explanation, whatsoever that it fails to capture my attention. I didn't care for The Player, Pret-A-Porter was a bore of a film & Popeye, well, it is all over the place, all the fun that exuded the cartoons was omitted and nowhere to be seen or felt here & it just doesn't feel like the Popeye that I was so used to via the cartoons. Instead of making a Popeye movie for mainstream film audiences, Altman aimed it at the art-house movie crowd - & with that, it bombed spectacularly & it's understandable that all those above factors came into play.  

Robin Williams, however, portrayed Popeye, brilliantly; he captures the aesthetic likeness (thanks to the efforts of the makeup effects department & bulging forearms), to the extent his face looks like Popeye - and the mannerisms to absolute precision, not forgetting his personality. He even successfully mimics his voice and the way he ad-libs as Popeye was unbelievable, it was so spot-on. & for once, one of his well-known traits in sentimentality- a common theme running in many of his movies -, was put on hold for this role. His sword fight as Popeye against Bluto was reminiscent in some ways to the sword fight between Peter Pan and Captain Hook in Hook. Shirley Duvall is a good Olive Oyl, I mean all the characters are represented and depicted in an accurate fashion. Though some of the dialogue sounded muffled and was difficult to decipher. And still, for all of this, the film is not a long narrative or story, rather it's a series of comic book-like scenes that are strung along together, some of which did drag on for far too long. 

Popeye runs for 1 hour and just over 35 mins, but with the way the film was unfolding pace-wise, it felt like 2 hours instead. 

Because of this, the story was very dull the longer it went on; I was yawning several times and dozed off & woke up & the pacing was just too slow. In fact, it took up way too much time to get going right from the beginning and the film didn't uphold my attention as fully as it could've done. It wasn't until Popeye's fight with Bluto towards the end that the film regained my interest. Had director Robert Altman opted for a more compelling, exciting and interesting story and direction based on the cartoon, it would have done the movie a huge service, in addition to attracting a much bigger crowd. What Altman should have done perhaps is based it on both the comic strips AND the cartoons because then, we'd probably get a much more rounded effort. Ditch the musical approach/aspect, and just present it as a live-action Popeye movie with lots of funny and action-packed moments, lines and have just one core narrative flowing throughout, as opposed to having different scenes. 

It's unfortunate that Altman, the writers and composers were not fully prepared in creating a much more enjoyable and palpable story to help compliment the impressive art direction and character portrayals by Williams, Shirley Duvall etc as their respective characters. If that had been the case, and it was based a lot more on the cartoons with more excitable moments & action scenes, then Popeye would have become a far better film. A film based on this famous character shouldn't have been as tepid and lacklustre as this. Yet I could have envisaged a proper Popeye live-action movie released in the 1990s produced by Disney with Robin in the main lead role & with special effects galore & a funnier, entertaining & much more engaging script that is akin to what Robin Williams had in Flubber for instance. It would have turned out far better than this offering by Robert Altman. But Robin makes for a great Popeye here, and it is a character role that can be aptly joined alongside the Genie from Aladdin and Peter Pan from Hook.

If you enjoyed the comic strips more than the cartoon and are more familiar with the Segar strip, you will probably be more than satisfied with Popeye. Some people have noted this film is goofy - but Popeye was aimed towards children and is more of a children's movie. Or be it towards fans of the strip. And so what if it was goofy in parts? Elements of the original comic and cartoons were slightly goofy too, and so that argument is, somewhat moot.

Popeye can be a tough film to watch, and it was strenuous viewing: in the sense that it's for an acquired taste, and though it is not as terrible as the critics originally slated it to be, it could have been so much more, as well as should have been even better. Despite some of its faults and not being a masterpiece, it presents Popeye as the sailor man, through his search for his dad and with little Swee'Pea beside him & Olive Oyl, & that he is still kind, devoted & loving at heart. 

I cannot doubt that we will or might get another live-action or CGI animated Popeye movie - but regardless, I still think this would have been a great vehicle for Robin Williams in the title. It's a shame, however, this Popeye movie was directed by Robert Altman & it came out in the early 1980s. Like I said earlier if it was released in the 1990s and minus Altman with a more colourful and boisterous approach, it would have turned out even better.


Pros +

- Robin Williams's portrayal & impersonation of Popeye was amazing

- Impressive art direction, sets looked great

- One or two musical numbers were not bad overall

Cons -

- Dialogue can be difficult to understand and decipher 

- Story was lacking, could have been much more exciting, enjoyable and entertaining

- Felt as if this was 2 hours long; far too slow with way too many dull scenes 

- Needed more action sequences or scenes to liven it up  

- Film would have worked better, had it been based on both the cartoons AND comic strips 

- The idea of having scenes put together instead of sticking to one core narrative doesn't really work 

Final Verdict:

It may not be the most noteworthy Robin Williams movie, ever; however, the film does have a few and only a few good scenes, notably the boxing scene and the ending fight between Popeye and Bluto. It will go down and be remembered for being another cult movie starring Robin. 

As the complete package, however, the film clearly tries, but never really succeeds. The pacing of the film was way too slow, with some scenes going on far longer than they should have, and the lack of action scenes are just several issues it has going for it. By basing it on the comic strip alone when the animated cartoons were far more sufficient, it's no wonder why Popeye didn't fare well at the box office. 

With all that being said, this is not an awful movie for all the wrong reasons.... but rather a movie based on a cartoon and comic strip, which has a lot of promise, yet it just needed one or two improvements for it to make it even better. That, and it is a type of film that would've worked better in the 1990s than it did in 1980. 

Despite all of this, if you want to see Robin Williams in his first ever feature film, then give Popeye a watch.


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