Forgotten Masterpieces #2: Popeye (1980)

In this day and age of ubiquitous big-budget comic book movies, we are used to seeing iconic comic book and cartoon characters with global recognizability and appeal featured in big-budget Hollywood adaptations. Many articles and studies (including my own book!) have focused on the 21st-century cycle of superhero movies that followed in the wake of Spider-Man‘s mammoth success in 2002, but this has merely been the longest and most prolific wave of such films, the sub-genre’s continued financial success (which is still ongoing) certainly getting a strong assist from the development of globalized capitalism.

Previously always very much a B-movie property, the “comic book movie” was transformed into a potential A-list commodity by the impact of Superman (1978), which in turn had been made possible by George Lucas’s game-changer Star Wars the year before. Not only did Superman establish a template for most subsequent comic book movie hits, which have tended to offer effects-laden origin stories for familiar popular icons, presented on a big canvas as modern-day adventure stories. In that sense, they follow in the footsteps of those older Hollywood behemoths, the sword-and-sandal epics that had been perennial audience favorites until the early 1960s.

One film from the short-lived big-budget cycle of comic book movies that followed in the wake of Superman is Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980), a perpetual oddity that is frequently included in top-10 lists of notorious flops and high-profile cinematic failures. Defenders of the film always point out that Altman’s whimsical, eccentric, and thoroughly delightful musical actually made plenty of money for co-distributors Disney and Paramount during its original theatrical run, and that the studios’ problem with it had been that they had expected it to have a much greater impact than it did. This may certainly be true: although Popeye easily turned a profit, it didn’t live up to the gargantuan returns of previous hits in the new blockbuster era that had been ushered in by Jaws (1975). But I think there are other factors that contributed to the Mouse House’s decision to more or less disown the potential film franchise from that point onward.

For starters, Popeye doesn’t offer the instantly recognizable narrative formula that made Star Wars and its legion of clones such a fundamentally nostalgic experience. Instead, Popeye drops its endlessly muttering protagonist into a surreal village set on Malta that is more like the desolate town in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (including a bizarrely conspicuous brothel) than anything out of Mickey’s cosy suburbia. Although the plot may be superficially described as an origin story in which Popeye first meets Olive Oyl, Swee’ Pea, and Bluto, and in which he acquires his famous taste for spinach, this deliberately quixotic experience otherwise eschews the established blockbuster elements: no major effects-driven set pieces, no traditional narrative patterns, and instead of a rousing John Williams score, a collection of Harry Nilsson tunes performed by actors who can’t really sing.

For fans of E.C. Segar’s marvelously surreal Thimble Theater comic strips and Dave Fleischer’s hilarious early animated shorts, this adaptation made perfect sense. After all, Popeye’s adventures are never about the archetypal Hero’s Journey on which all other movies in this comic book movie genre have come to rely. He’s a weird, perpetually-befuddled little guy with a mumble and a squint, and a proclivity for knocking people on their ass without too much provocation. Other characters, like the Tax Collector, embellish Popeye’s surreal, strangely claustrophobic little world with a Kafkaesque atmosphere even more at odds with Disney’s tidy world, in which authentic rulers are always benign and where evil is always punished.

But comic book movies are usually only really judged in comparison with their source if they are adapted from graphic novels by Alan Moore, and not many people were all that interested in Segar’s comic strips or the old Fleischer cartoons. Nor were Robert Altman fans at the time particularly interested in the iconoclastic auteur taking on a big-budget live-action cartoon marketed primarily towards children. I’m guessing that Altman devotees saw the film as a sell-out, its perceived failure compounded by the film’s much-discussed lack of true blockbuster success.

But as the late director has pointed out himself in the book Altman on Altman, children may still be the best judge of the film’s merits. Kids, and especially those who get to see this amazing film before they have learned to expect all movie experiences to be basically the same, generally adore Popeye, intuitively appreciating its genuinely anarchic spirit, its full-blown weirdness, its episodic storyline, and its expertly executed slapstick antics. Popeye is awesome: ask anyone under eight (or else ask the movie’s number-one fan Paul Thomas Anderson, who has been trying to restore the film’s reputation for years, and who included Shelley Duvall’s fantastic performance of “He Needs Me” in his own Punch-Drunk Love.)

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6 Responses to Forgotten Masterpieces #2: Popeye (1980)

  1. Pingback: Altman’s Popeye: Forgotten Masterpiece? Discuss « Movie City News

  2. Jan Kubicki says:

    I walked out of this mess when it first came out. I rented it from Netflix a few years ago to see if I was wrong the first time. I wasn’t. After about ten miserable minutes, back it went into the mailer. There aren’t many movies I’ve hated more by some of my favorite directors — Fellini’s City of Women, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, and Anderson’s Punchdrunk Love come to mind. Best to leave Popeye remain where it is.

  3. Larry Vigus says:

    Popeye is a brilliant film full of rich quirky characters in unusual situations complete with wonderful whimsical personal songs. It reminds me of MASH or Brewster McCloud; also brilliant films full of rich quirky characters in unusual situations; but lacking wonderful whimsical personal songs. For the other brilliant film with wonderful whimsical personal songs we have to look to Nashville.

  4. K.E. Owen says:

    I think Popeye is an effective means to determine how firmly and far the stick is shoved up some people’s butts. The movie is whimsical, bizarre, and benefits from an underlying, exceptionally subtle sardonic wit. The slapstick is inspired and Harry Nilsson’s songs are clever, catchy, and sometimes as naughty and subversive as the Nilsson-penned Monkees tune “Cuddly Toy”. Robin Williams was brilliant, slipping naughty phrases under his breath in the middle of his lines and lyrics. Bill Irwin is teriffic as Ham Gravy when he’s being manhandled by Bluto and other toughs in Sweethaven. The background details and gags are a delight for any fan of the comic strip. This movie is just wonderfully weird.

    And I think that is where the problem lies. Altman and co. went for the weirdness and content from the old comic strip, rather than the safer, more familiar cartoons of later years. The cartoons bear little resemblance to the strip, missing many of the characters and dumbing down the plot to something that fits into a three minute short; Usually the standard “Popeye gets his butt kicked, eats spinach, then kicks Bluto’s butt.” That is what people wanted, and what they got was Thimble Theater, the musical.

    To me, that is what makes it awesome. Altman took a chance, and it pays off for those who find formulaic flicks a bore.

  5. fide says:

    Love this movie and this review. I watched it over and over at the hotel TV, during a trip to Disneyland, around 1980-81. I was five or six years old, at the time. Of course I had to get the OST and watch the movie at the cinema, back in my country. I still have the vinyl somewhere.

  6. Yves Rodier says:

    Love love LOVE this movie. Seen it on the big screen in 1980 (I was 13) loved it then and loved the songs (and yet, I hate musicals!). Found the wonderful Harry Nilsson soundtrack record and listened to it to the point of knowing every little line muttered by Popeye between the lyrics, then bought the movie on VHS, and then on DVD and finally on Blu Ray… I love how this movie, between the slapstick sequences and quirky characters, is inherently sweet and a little mournful. Popeye founding Swee’Pea and adopting him while searching for is own father, Olive wanting to be loved by a man who would need her… It’s full of yearning for happiness and love… The songs are incredibly touching. I almost cry when I listen to the fantastic “Sailin'”… I just can’t understand when people tell me they don’t like this movie… But it comes down to acquired taste, I guess…

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