Even on a third viewing Robert Altman’s comic-strip adaptation stretches patience and credulity, even if there are rewards along the way. Godfather producer Robert Evans, usually a smart operator, bankrolled a huge production for Paramount to bring the popular sailor chap to audiences. Filming on a Maltese island that was presumably as large as the film’s cocaine budget, Popeye involved the construction of an entire village, named Sweethaven, which is hugely impressive even if the film really isn’t.
Popeye (Robin Williams, barely intelligible even dubbed) lives in Sweethaven with Olive Oyl (Shelley Duval) and their baby Sweetpea. There’s a ramshackle collection of characters around them, including Bluto (Paul L Smith) who has a rivalry with the fore-arm friendly sailor. Popeye is searching for his father (Ray Walston), but the distraction allows Bluto to kidnap his child, forcing Popeye to use his own particular set of fighting skills to retrieve the child.
I used to have a cartoon by Jules Ffeiffer on my wall as a teenager; in front of a huge crowd, two men stand by a microphone ‘How will we tell them that this isn’t working?’ says one. Ffeiffer understood the comic potential of the frame, and his screenplay for Popeye: the movie seems to dare the audience to find the jokes, in the celebrated manner of Jacques Tati. But director Robert Altman really doesn’t seem engaged with the project beyond casting; there’s literally no action in the first half, just chat and meals, and the final fight with a lack-lustre octopus is paltry reward. And did I mention this was a musical? Harry Nilsson wrote the songs, few of which have any effect.
Popeye seems to have tripled it’s budget at the box-office, a fact that surprises me, given that its reputation is as a flop. There’s a smattering of brilliant sight gags, and there is some knowing humour, but the central casting, while looking good, simply doesn’t work; Williams is exhausting to watch, and everyone else struggles to be anything but a caricature. Perhaps it made money, but given the talent involved, Popeye is a true fiasco, a stupendous set of talents unable to connect with poorly chosen material.