Popeye (1980) — It yis what it yis

“What kind of name is Olive Oyl? Sounds like some kind of lubricance.”

Sitting Duck’s rating: 7 out of 10 hamburgers to be paid for on Tuesday

Sitting Duck’s review: Diving into the entertainments of your childhood is always a perilous endeavor. For every one piece of media (be it book, movie, TV show, or something else) from that time which still holds up, at least a dozen will have you curse the clueless bad taste of your earlier self.

One of my greater past regrets is the oeuvre of Robin Williams. Way Back in the Day I adored syndicated reruns of Mork & Mindy as well as his movies (at least the ones my mom would let me watch). But as I got older, some of his shticks really began to grate my cheese. The most intolerable being how he would often regard film and television acting as no different from doing stand-up — just without having to deal with intoxicated hecklers. This trait of his brings to mind the type of Class Clown whose antics everyone despises yet remains convinced that he (and 999 out of a thousand times, that person will be a he) is the life of the party. Sadly, no amount of wedgies, swirlies, or time stuffed in lockers can cure this delusion.

Which brings us to the live action film version of Popeye in which Williams starred. Way back when, our family used one of our precious blank videotapes to record it for posterity when it was broadcast on network television. This one was a favorite for viewing when I was growing up. In my youthful ignorance, I knew nothing about the toxic working relationship between Williams and director Robert Altman or the troubled production cycle or the near universal hostility (aside from Siskel and Ebert) expressed by the critics. Even if I had, it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway. But does that goodwill still hold up?

I can’t really offer much of a plot summary. Aside from the titular sailor man seeking out his truant father, there isn’t really much of an overarching storyline. Instead, we get an episodic series of segments that are relatively self-contained. In most circumstances, this could result in a disorganized mess of a film. But that issue is counteracted by how each segment segues naturally into the next, making it feel more cohesive than you might expect. And the movie caps off nicely with an energetic third act action piece, with plenty of cartoonish shenanigans to keep it entertaining. However, there is one weak point in the climax concerning the non-functionality of the octopus, with comparisons to the one from Bride of the Monster being not entirely unfair (though at least the eyes worked).

As noted above, the movie was poorly received by critics on its initial release, with Altman becoming a pariah in Hollywood. Though contrary to popular belief, it did quite well at the box office. There are a few reasons why this likely occurred. The most obvious is how the script is based off the E.C. Segar comic strip rather than the more familiar Max Fleischer cartoons. Certainly, my eight-year-old self had been confused by the presence of Geezil, a mostly comic strip-exclusive character. But I believe that just because the source material isn’t as familiar as a renowned adaptation doesn’t mean going back to the roots should be held against it.

The other issue was how it was a musical (a movie type that had been falling out of favor through the Seventies thanks to flicks like At Long Last Love and Lost Horizon) intended to get the jump on the film version of Annie. But more on that in a bit.

The acting features a high degree of competence, with notably exceptional performances by Ray Walston as Pappy and Paul Dooley as Wimpy. However, it’s the two leads who really impress. Though in the case of Williams, it was more despite his efforts. Altman had a low tolerance for the sort of antics his lead actor liked to get up to, which helped fuel their mutual animosity. But though he might not have appreciated it at the time (and may have resented it to his dying day for all I know), Altman keeping Williams on a short leash was to his benefit as a performer as well as to the production as a whole.

However, the real standout is Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. I’m not sure which is more unsettling: The fact that she looks and sounds exactly like the character, or how it didn’t require that much effort on her part to accomplish.

A common issue with live action versions of cartoons is presenting the physics-defying slapstick common to the medium. All too often it ends up looking wrong or just plain stupid. But through impeccable stunt work (and perhaps thanks to the use of old-school cartoon sound effects as well), it manages the feat of looking like a cartoon in live action without being jarring.

The obvious weak point of the movie is the songs. Dear Gawd, the songs! Sure, the studio was trying to get out a competing product after losing the bidding war for the rights to Annie. But Annie had the distinct advantage in having proven its mettle on Broadway. Now there were a couple of decent ones, like “Everything is Food.” But the vast majority were absolute clunkers, made worse by how most of the actors couldn’t sing. Shelley Duvall in particular was a trial to sit through. She may have perfectly captured the essence of her character, but singing is one talent where she fell short. If you thought Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood made fools of themselves in Paint Your Wagon, that’s nothing compared to what Duvall pulls off here.

It’s really a shame that the intent to upstage Annie was so resolute. Without the songs acting as a distraction, perhaps critics of the day would have been more likely to recognize the film’s strengths. And perhaps it could have served as a standard for the best way to adapt a cartoon to live action. But alas, these are might-have-beens, and we should probably be happy over how its reputation has improved over the years.


  • To be fair, those hats are pretty ugly
  • Not the best way to carry milk bottles
  • Who eats a burger with a knife and fork?
  • The cafe sign prohibiting credit
  • Organic fur
  • That was actually a pretty good ad-lib
  • The typical small-town band
  • As a sailor, I suppose he would be familiar with “venerable” diseases
  • Pole dancing
  • Pipe periscope
  • Naughty tentacles
  • Got to admit that spinach does look gross
  • Obligatory MST3K connection: Stunt coordinator Roberto Messina (who also portrayed one of the toughs) was stunt coordinator for Final Justice.

One comment

  1. It seems Ms. Duval was hesitant to play Olive Oyl because, when she was a teenager, people used the name on her as an insult.

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