Based on the enduring character Popeye the Sailor Man, a popular attraction in comic strips and cartoons since the Depression era, this big-budget musical comedy was such an embarrassing misfire that it’s amazing the principals behind the film were able to sustain careers afterward. For leading man Robin Williams, who chose this project for his first big-screen starring role after conquering television with Mork & Mindy, the picture led to a stint in “movie jail” that didn’t end until he took a dramatic turn in The World According to Garp (1982). And for director Robert Altman, who should have known better, Popeye dissipated what remained of the goodwill earned by hits including M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975)—after Popeye, Altman spent more than a decade making low-budget oddities until returning to the A-list with The Player (1992).
Allowing that some folks consider the movie to be a quirky gem, Popeye is likely to strike most viewers as awkward and boring and silly right from the get-go. Amid preposterously elaborate production design that includes an entire seaside village built from scratch, Williams plays Popeye with prosthetics on his arms that make Williams look as if he’s smuggling hams under the skin beneath his wrists and his elbows. Like everyone around him, Williams (badly) sings arty little ditties penned by the idiosyncratic rock musician Harry Nilsson. Meanwhile, Altman regular Shelley Duvall plays Olive Oyl as a mess of goofy pratfalls and shrill noises, while offbeat actors ranging from Paul Dooley to Bill Irwin to Paul Smith (best remembered as a would-be rapist in 1978’s Midnight Express) personify one-joke characters with performances of astonishing monotony.
All of these resources are put in the service of a turgid story about Popeye competing with the brutish Bluto (Smith) for Olive’s hand, about Popeye and Olive becoming the surrogate parents for an orphaned baby named Swee’Pea, and about Popeye reconnecting with his long-lost dad, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). There’s also a big fight with an octopus, and, naturally, lots of spinach. While it might seem small-minded to criticize Altman and his collaborators for trying to blend unusual elements, there’s nothing quite so inert as a failed experiment in genre-splicing. As penned by satirist Jules Feiffer, who shares an insouciant approach to comedy with Altman and Nilsson, Popeye clearly wants to be entertaining and ironic simultaneously. Instead, it’s too plodding and stupid for cerebral viewers, and too weird for casual watchers. It’s fair to say there’s never been a movie exactly like Popeye—an arthouse cartoon, if you will—but that’s not meant as praise.