Movie Information

In Brief: Robert Altman's big-budgeted, live-action take on Popeye pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of being both true to the character from the old Max Fleischer cartoons, while being slyly revisionist in the bargain. Jules Feiffer's screenplay — and Robin Williams' ad-libbing — really catches the spirit of the title character, while Altman effortlessly makes the equivalent of a cartoon with live actors. Harry Nilsson's charmingly rather shapeless songs capture the tone.
Genre: Musical Comedy
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini
Rated: PG

Robert Altman’s film Popeye is pretty much a love-it or hate-it proposition. Despite being championed by some critics (notably Andrew Sarris) and admired by Altman fans, the film was not a hit when it first appeared, but its reputation has grown over the years. Part of the problem was that Altman’s idea of Popeye was both in keeping with the old Max Fleischer cartoons and yet was riddled with Altmanesque quirks — like the concept of a Popeye who hates spinach. The casting was also troublesome for some. Robin Williams was probably nobody’s idea of Popeye, but I can think of no one else who could have pulled off those under-his-breath comments. Shelley Duvall, on the other hand, was born to play Olive Oyl. What most detractors failed to take into account was that this deliberately shambling movie with its quirky Harry Nilsson songs was a generally successful attempt at making a live-action cartoon. It’s true that the film tends to wander more than follow a straightforward plot, but that’s part of its charm. (Considering reports that the cast and crew were drugged to the eyeballs during the shoot, it’s remarkable that it’s even coherent.) The film is one of those rare pictures that looks better with each passing year.

The Asheville Film Society will screen Popeye Tuesday, July 30, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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14 thoughts on “Popeye

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    Now some just needs to make a live action version of the Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons.

  2. DrSerizawa

    We saw this at the Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood when it came out. With the sound system there the initial thunderclap at the beginning almost knocked us out of our seats.

  3. Dionysis

    “Robert Altman’s film Popeye is pretty much a love-it or hate-it proposition.”

    Put me in the ‘I hated it’ column.

    “…drugged to the eyeballs during the shoot…”

    Now had I been in that condition when I saw it, I might have liked it better.

  4. Ken Hanke

    A lot of people are in the hate it column. I’m in the love it. It balances out.

  5. Big Al

    I saw it as a kid and thought I liked it (I think I recall my parents hating it) although I admit Bluto and the Octopus scared the crap out of me.

    Saw it again last year for the first time in almost 40 years, and solidly joined the “hate it” column.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I guess we oughtn’t be expecting you on Tuesday. Then again, I’m not sure you’ve ever come to a screening, which is a little surprising.

  7. Chip Kaufmann

    I really liked this when it first came out as it reminded me more of Elzie Segar’s THIMBLE THEATRE comic strip (of which I had a collection) than the Fleischer Cartoons which I think was Jules Feiffer’s and Robert Altman’s intention. I also liked Harry Nilsson’s score.

    I liked it even more when the DVD came out and the subtitle option told me just what it was that Robin Williams was muttering under his breath. He made them up himself and they’re quite funny when you can understand them.

  8. Ken Hanke

    The presence of Geezil is, I think, strictly from the comics, but the style and the muttering owe much to the cartoons. I can’t recall ever having that much trouble understanding the mutterings, though.

  9. Chip Kaufmann

    That’s because you’re more perceptive than I am.

    I’ve always had trouble understanding the overlapping dialogue in Altman’s movies which used to piss me off. Maybe the idea was to make you see the movie more than once to figure out what was being said (and increasing the box office in the process).

    Whatever the reason it’s only since having the option of subtitles that I’ve begun to fully appreciate Altman’s work. This is especially true of THE LONG GOODBYE. BUFFALO BILL & THE INDIANS, and A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I need to see The Long Goodbye and I need to re-see Buffalo Bill.

  11. Orbit DVD

    THE LONG GOODBYE is one of my favorite Altman films. It’s a Raymond Chandler adaptation and it’s also a showcase for Vilmos Zsigmond’s wonderful cinematography.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Oh, I like the idea of Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe. I’ve just never bumped into the film.

  13. Orbit DVD

    I could aggressively bump you with it, if you are so inclined.

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