Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Robin Williams, Shelly Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith
Director:  Robert Altman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  None
Length:  114 Minutes
Release Date:  June 24, 2003

“They’ve got me Olive Oyl and Swee’Pea!”

“Olive Oyl?  Swee’Pea?  What’re you doing, making a salad??”

Film *

If you ever feel like you’re having just the worst day, or worst week, or whatever…if you ever feel like nothing you do is right and everything you touched turned to refuse, you can always think about Robert Altman.  He’s one of America’s most respected and prolific film directors, with Oscar nominated and winning masterpieces like M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park to his credit.

Yet he also made Popeye.  Nobody’s perfect.

The combination of Robert Altman, along with one of television’s most popular stars in Robin Williams (Mork and Mindy was in its heyday), and a legendary cartoon character that had been a big screen success since the early days of Max Fleischer probably seemed like a good bet.  At least, I’m guessing that’s what studio execs kept telling themselves after seeing this film in previews for the first time.

Popeye just flat out doesn’t work.  The quirkiness of the cartoon comes across as surreal and distant on the screen.  Robin Williams’ take on Popeye’s voice, while right in tone, is mostly unintelligible… I never appreciated DVD subtitles so much in my life.  And while Shelley Duvall may have been born to play Olive Oyl, the rest of the cast is a hopelessly eccentric waste of humanity, save for Ray Walston’s sharp tongue as Pappy.

The decision to make the movie a musical was not necessarily bad in and of itself, but the songs penned by Harry Nilsson are worse than forgettable…they’re downright aggravating and annoying.  Some of his lyrical highlights include:

“I yam what I yam what I yam what I yam what I yam what I yam what I yam…”

“He needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me…”

“I’m mean, I’m mean, I’m mean, you know what I mean…”

“And he’s large…he’s large…he’s large…”

Where’s Stephen Sondheim when we need him most?  This makes “strong to the finich cause I eats me spinach” sound like Oscar Hammerstein.  As Popeye himself would say, I am disgustipated.

There’s not much story here; merely a cruising through key points.  Popeye sails into Sweethaven looking for his Pappy.  He meets Olive, discovers baby Swee’Pea, makes a key enemy of Bluto (Smith), finds said Pappy, eats some spinach, and saves the day.  Hope I didn’t spoil it for anybody.

Despite impressive Disney World-type sets and a cast of extras mostly from European circuses, the picture just sits on the screen, never gathering momentum and never building toward anything.  A plot diagram of this picture would be a flat line.  So would a life support monitor for it.

Jules Feiffer’s screenplay is decidedly unfunny.  When Robin Williams is on the screen for two hours and you never laugh, you have to figure somebody dropped the ball long before handing it to him.

It’s amusing, because when I first heard this picture was coming to DVD, I was eager to see it again.  I told my comrade Gordon that I saw the picture at least a half dozen times on HBO when I was about 11 or 12, but couldn’t really remember a thing about it.  Now I remember why I forgot.  One only hopes that Robert Altman’s and Robin Williams’ memories don’t get such a jog.

Video ****

Movie quality aside, this is one outstanding anamorphic transfer from Paramount.  The 80s always seem to be a problem era for DVD, but this one raises the bar.  Colors are rich and full and expertly rendered, images are crisp and clean down to the minutest detail, and the print itself is vibrant and clean…no grain, shimmer, spots or evidence of compression mar the experience.  I don’t know how they did it, but I appreciate the effort, and I’m sure every time I look at an 80s DVD in the future, I’m going to be comparing it to this one.

Audio ***

A 5.1 remix is a welcome addition…the audio is clear and dynamic, and the music, though terrible, sounds full and forceful.  Lots of Sweethaven town activity keep both front and rear stages occupied with plenty of discretion and smooth crossovers, and the .1 channel gets a fair share of action as well.  But nothing can help with Popeye’s muttering, which I’ve read had to be mostly post dubbed because the microphones couldn’t pick it up live!  Overall, though, very good marks.

Features (zero stars)

Well, blows me down…not a farthing.


Popeye was a trip down memory lane for me.  Now the time for remembering is over, and the time for forgetting has begun once again.