- Movie Rating -

Popeye (1980)

| December 12, 1980

I didn’t expect this.  Really, I never expected a live-action version of Popeye to be disarming.  I suppose I went into the movie expecting kind of a lazy train wreck, a movie that had a lot of money thrown on it but ultimately no heart and barely even the bare minimum.  I didn’t expect a movie this dense, this detailed or, darn it, this charming.

Let’s start with the look.  The town of Sweethaven is one of the great spaces in the movies, a seaside hamlet with streets that bend at crazy angles and houses that would give housing inspectors mountains of paperwork.  It’s not a real place, it’s a movie place, or more specifically a tribute to the world that Segar created in his comic strips and that Max Fleisher recreated in his cartoon shorts.  Added to that are the characters.  Director Robert Altman has employed a gaggle of actors who look the part of Popeye, Olive Oyl, Wimpy, Swee’pea, Bluto, Pappy.  They are willing to flesh out the one-dimensional nature of these characters and allow them to occupy the space to make it feel populated.

This is typical of Robert Altman who, in his best work, creates specific places and overpopulates his films with dozens of actors, many of whom cross in front of one another, talk over each other and have destinies that sometimes intersect.  Think of the camp in MASH, the town in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the hotels, hallways and corridors of Nashville.  He does the same thing here.  We’re never in our seats, we’re in the corner of the room watching the characters cross paths.

Even more than that Popeye is true to its origins.  The story never really sticks to one thing.  At one moment Popeye comes into town looking for his Pappy.  Then he gets involved with Olive Oyl’s family.  Then he gets in a boxing match.  Then he runs afoul of Bluto.  Later he gets involved in a search for buried treasure.  The fractured flow of these story elements are part of the magic because it means that there isn’t one story to deal with.  It’s kind of just a series of adventures much like the comic strip or the cartoons.  I think a straight-line narrative would have been fatal here because it means that the characters would have to be locked into doing something and the free-flow of their daily activities would be lost.  Better to feel that we’re in a place that is always moving, always flowing, always with stories that are happening in the background.

I enjoyed Popeye a great deal.  It’s not a great movie and many have pointed out that it is just too slow, that there is no story, and that’s okay.  If you don’t like the film’s laid-back tone, that’s fine.  I liked it’s laid-back approach.  I liked hanging out with these characters.  I liked the fractured nature of it.  I can’t say that it’s any kind of a breakthrough but I came away with a lot more joy than I expected.

[Reviewed July 6, 2014]

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized