By Richard Winters
My Rating: 3 out of 10
4-Word Review: He doesn’t like spinach.
Popeye (Robin Williams) is a sailor who travels to the seaside village of Sweet Haven in search of his long lost father (Ray Walston). It is there that he moves into the upstairs room of the Oyl residence and becomes attracted to their daughter Olive (Shelley Duvall). Olive though is engaged to the gruff Bluto (Paul L. Smith) whose bullying ways is giving Olive second thoughts. When she tries to leave town in order to avoid the impending marriage she meets Popeye and they get into a relationship while also coming upon an orphaned baby that they name Swee’pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), but Bluto becomes determined to destroy their union by kidnapping the child.
I remember watching the Popeye cartoons growing up and while I was never much of a fan this film version fails to replicate the original storylines. In the cartoons the relationship between Olive and Popeye seemed in constant flux and many times Olive would be ‘stolen away’ by Bluto’s courting and Popeye would have to win her back. Here the confrontations between Bluto and Popeye are played down significantly and there’s only two fight sequences between them and they last for only a few minutes.
The biggest difference though is that here Popeye doesn’t like spinach even though in the cartoons his spinach consumption was the whole reason he got his strength. Apparently when Popeye was introduced in 1929 he got his strength from rubbing the hairs on a magical whiffle hen named Bernice, but modern day audiences equate Popeye with spinach and changing this concept makes it seem like the film is not staying true to form. Kids who enjoyed the cartoons come to the movie expecting the same theme not watching something that’s going to take what they love into a completely different direction. What’s worse is that here there’s no explanation for how Popeye gets his amazing strength, which makes the already loopy storyline even dumber.
Williams gives a great performance, but his presence gets drowned out by the introduction of too many other characters including Paul Dooley as Wimpy who almost seems to have more screen time. Watching Walston play an older version of Popeye as the father is not funny, but instead incredibly annoying and again only helps to overshadow Williams’ great work.
I originally thought the casting of Duvall was inspired as I don’t think there’s any other actress living or dead who shares the physical traits of the Olive Oyl character quite as well as Duvall and in fact she admitted in interviews that she was nicknamed Olive Oyl by the school kids growing up. However, she overplays Olive’s nervous mannerisms which become repetitive and irritating while her attempts at singing are beyond bad.
The town of Sweet Haven, which took seven months to construct and consisted of 19 buildings built off the cost of Malta that still stands today, are the film’s strongest element, but everything else from its unfocused script evaporates into a mass sea of boredom. Robert Altman, who can be a great director at times, was the wrong choice for this type of production. He excels at doing existential adult dramas not kiddie flicks and children watching this thing will most assuredly become bored and the adults will too.
My Rating: 3 out of 10
Released: December 12, 1980
Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes
Director: Robert Altman
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube
As Altman misfires goes this one is the most commercial with a sweet Duvall and likable Williams.
A dream about Robin Williams’ Popeye once felt like it helped to heal a trauma from my childhood. For me that’s how special Robin’s talents were even in an otherwise not-the-best-that-it-could’ve-been movie.