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Directed by Robert Altman.
Robert Altman’s live action film, is based on the lovable cartoon sailor and his madcap antics, doubly engaged in the search for his long lost Pappy and in the protection of his goofy, gangly, girlfriend Olive Oyl and their adopted son Sweepea from the blustering villain of the piece, Bluto. Viewing the film for the very first time (the initial release was in 1981) I felt pleasantly entertained and confused in equal measure.
At first, I expected a musical film in the traditional sense with big, rousing production numbers and a storyline that exceeded the limitations of a five minutes duration, short animated cartoon. In fact, the story, for what it basically comprises could quite easily have fit into the span of a Popeye cartoon, but the surprise was that the musical aspects of the film are actually very subtly placed and nuanced so that they almost become a part of the inner dialogue of the piece as a whole and do not dominate.
The handful of songs were composed by Harry Nilsson, whose music was generally categorised as popular or ‘middle of the road’ even, but very off kilter compositions for all of that. His number one hit single ‘Without You’ is the exception; a pop song performed in the style of the big production with a full orchestra and the one we most associate with Nilsson. The subtlety of the songs in Popeye, expressing very simply the inner feelings of the individual characters – whether they be love or conflict – are nicely offset by the manic cartoon like scenes involving the central characters and the occupants of the sprawling seaside fishing village.
The live action is nicely choreographed to mirror the rubbery quality of the original cartoon drawings, adding the touch of authenticity required so that the viewing audience has no need to work at discerning between the two mediums. It is exactly that: a live action film devoid of major special effects that looks like a piece of basic animation.
Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall invest in the characters of Popeye and Olive Oyl all of the quirky and loveable aspects that had us rooting for these comical heroes when we were young. It is our nostalgia for these characters and Robert Altman’s vision that is so endearing to us, now that we have grown up.
Another aspect of the film which threw me at first was, why and how the Disney company and Altman collaborated in the first place. Chalk and cheese was the over-used cliché that came to mind. Then I began to compare films. In Robert Altman’s Popeye, there are scenes of complete confusion and calamity that are in keeping with the animated Popeye but which also reminded me of the crazy antics of the seven dwarfs throughout Disney’s Snow White and Honest John the fox and his companion in crime the mute tomcat Gideon in Disney’s Pinocchio. All have a similar elastic quality that I think Altman had noticed and taken into account.
Popeye can be traced back to some of Robert Altman’s earlier films. Most notably, it is no coincidence here that Popeye is the stranger who arrives in a strange place searching for someone and intending to become a part of that community in the same way that Warren Beatty does in McCabe and Mrs Miller. Altmans’ realistic approach to film dialogue (conversation taking second place to the action, but in general terms at odds with other conversations taking place, causing a cacophony of sound) is there throughout his whole body of work (MASH, Nashville, The Long Goodbye) leading up to (and including) Popeye and beyond (Short Cuts, Pret a porter and A Prairie Home Companion). He doesn’t compromise his style with Popeye and pander to a commercial audience of mainly parents and children. The audience is expected to work along with Popeye as with all his films.
In the cartoons, Popeye is all too keen to thrown back his head and down a can of spinach in one, prior to a bust-up. Robin Williams portrays Popeye as a sensitive man with a purpose and tenacious will, but surprisingly, he hates spinach, which is the very thing that he has to overcome if he is to gain the strength to overthrow his enemy, Bluto.
Ultimately, Robert Altman’s Popeye is a film full of the fun and the drama we expect from a Popeye cartoon, filled with endearing characters and some exceptionally apt songs (the best being “He needs me”, sung by Olive Oyl when she’s musing over her attraction to Popeye). And where (in the inventive and whacky climax) the kooky Olive, confined inside a ships funnel, is saved by Popeye from the tentacles of a gigantic octopus and where true love wins the day and the villainous brute Bluto literally turns a cowardly yellow at the end.
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