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For, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020


EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Altman’s ‘Popeye’ has a tarnished reputation and a lowly 61 percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But I gave it a rave in 1980 and then heard from fellow critics who disagreed. Was I was alone in my estimation? Oh, well. I still like ‘Popeye’ today and for this write-up decided to look at some of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and to my pleasant surprise, two of the country’s most respected critics back in 1980 — Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert — liked it too. It was also nice to learn when I interviewed Robert Altman at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991 that ‘Popeye’ was one of his favorites of his own films. And it’s still worth a look, especially now that the film has earned a gorgeous Blu-ray upgrade from Paramount Home Entertainment. This review was published in the Deseret News on Dec. 12, 1980.


To put it into words that the lead character himself might construct: “Popeye” is simply fantasmical, splendiferous — or in other words, an excellink movin’ pitcher!


I should probably offer an early footnote to that, however. If you don’t like the cartoon character, you won’t like the movie.


And if you are unacquainted with “Popeye,” it wouldn’t hurt to ask your kids if you can sit in on a few cartoons being rerun on television before you see the film.


Barring those two minor exceptions, however, the rest of you, who are no doubt fans of the squinty-eyed sailor, should run, dance or bounce to the nearest theater playing “Popeye” and see it right away — so you can go back and see it again.




Robin Williams in his first starring film role is the sailor with a perpetual squint in Robert Altman's 'Popeye' (1980), here walking ahead of Wimpy (Paul Dooley), Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) and a gathered crowd.


Robert Altman, one of America’s most controversial directors, has created a movie that has to be one of the most original works of film art to ever hit the big screen.


The concept is not original, of course, having come from the popular comic strip and the animated cartoons, but the execution is supremely original — with actors and sets looking more like the cartoons than the cartoons.


The result is pure delight for young and old.


To say the film is faithful to the cartoon is to understate. Jules Feiffer’s excellent script sticks to the original comic strip plot and the dialogue is amazingly accurate. One of my favorite aspects of the earliest “Popeye” cartoons was his shifting from the gravel voice to a high-pitched half-thought, half-spoken aside, which usually was some outrageous pun. That, too, is intact, and the asides are always outrageous and frequently hilarious.


Giuseppe Rotunno, often Federico Fellini’s cinematographer, has beautifully photographed the incredible sets on the island of Malta, and pop singer-composer Harry Nilsson has come up with a number of delightful songs that fit the mood perfectly.


But the bulk of the credit for this mirth-filled masterpiece must go to Robert Altman and his terrific cast.


Altman has his players skipping, hopping, bouncing and dancing as if they really are cartoon characters. In fact, there is often so much pratfalling, slapsticking and jokey dialogue going on at once in this movie that you’ll miss something if you take the time to blink. Somehow, Altman manages to keep it from being too much.


Robin Williams, in his lead film debut, is totally the title character. With his hair dyed red, his right eye shut and his forearms and calves swollen like balloons, his physical appearance takes him halfway home. The other half is provided by his posture, the two voices he uses and his manner, all of which have caught the spirit of the character so fully that it’s nothing short of incredible.




It’s been written by many others that Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl, and I must admit I’m hard-pressed to think of better casting. She, too, has fully captured the character, right down to the twisting of her legs, the craning of her neck and the high-pitched wobbly voice. She can’t hold a tune very well, however — and that also fits perfectly with the role.


Equally well cast are Paul Dooley (the father in “Breaking Away”) as the hamburger-munching Wimpy and Ray Walston as Popeye’s Poopdeck Pappy. Paul L. Smith is less effective as Bluto, largely because he has little to do but smolder as we hear a bull snort on the soundtrack. He is, however, menacing enough for the part.


Even the minor supporting roles are amazingly well cast. Donald Moffat as the tax collector who taxes everything in sight is particularly memorable. And as Swee’pea, Wesley Ivan Hurt is cute, adorable and adds much to the success of the film.


I have only two complaints about “Popeye.” First, that some gratuitous profanity, though, thankfully very little, was added at the very end of the film — a rather tasteless move. Second, the orchestrations for the music used in the film’s finale seem out of place and inappropriate, a miscalculation on someone’s part. Minor problems, both.


For the record, the plot has Popeye landing in the harbor town of Sweethaven in search of his long-lost father. He takes a room at the boarding house of the Oyl family, where he meets Olive, who is engaged to the blustery Bluto.


Bluto taxes the town to death for a mysterious character called “The Commodore,” until he has too many run-ins with Popeye. Popeye and Olive find abandoned baby Swee’pee … but you’ll find all that out when you go see it.


“Popeye” is a heck of a lot of fun and a wonderful Christmas movie treat for the entire family.


Don’t miss it.