Directed by Robert Altman? Starring Robin Williams? How did this film end up on my list of terrible Disney films? Well, there are a lot of odd things going on here. The film opens with Paramount’s logo, for instance (along with Dragonslayer, it was co-produced by both Disney and Paramount, with Paramount holding the distribution rights). So, do all these odd elements come together to form a film that’s strong to the finich?
A man with a squinty eye and deformed arms (Robin Williams) is looking for his dad.
Which is difficult, because the film has a Where’s Waldo-esque number of background characters.
He meets a tall skinny lady (Shelley Duvall), and the two of them find a baby lying around, so they decide to keep it. As it turns out, the baby is able to predict the future for no explainable reason.
No questions asked.
But the tall skinny lady was engaged to a large angry man (Paul L. Smith), who becomes even angrier once jilted.
Oh hey, it’s Laser Wolf!
The large angry man kidnaps the baby, and it turns out he works for the long lost father (Ray Walston) of the man with deformed arms. But the large angry man betrays the long-lost father, and goes off with the baby, presumably to use it for gambling purposes.
Oh no, I guess?
He kidnaps the tall skinny lady too. The man with deformed arms unties his dad, and the two give chase. A long boring boat race ensues.
Toot toot, no one cares.
Finally the boats crash into each other, and the man with deformed arms saves the baby and the skinny lady from the large angry man by punching an octopus into space. Then he does a little dance.
Wait. That’s all that happens in almost two hours? Yes.
I found it rather difficult to decipher what exactly Popeye was trying to say (and I’m not just talking about Altman’s trademark mumbly overlapping dialogue!). It obviously has something to do with parents and their children. Over the course of the movie, Popeye’s two main arcs involve searching for his lost father and taking care of his own adopted son.
Good news, kid, you’re not in danger of inheriting his fucked-up forearms.
Then during the climactic boat battle, Popeye’s dad, Poopdeck Pappy, rants for minutes on end about how shitty and ungrateful kids are.
“Why, they’re just smaller versions of us, you know.
Well, I’m not so crazy about me in the first place, so why do I want one of them?”
– Probably the best line in the film.
So where are we left? I guess having kids sucks, but is also super rewarding sometimes? Jeez. I could have gotten that by reading the wall of any mom on Facebook.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
Well, sorry if this article has been somewhat skimpy on plot and subtext. I’ve got a good excuse: the movie was too! Wocka wocka wocka. Anyhow, right out of the gate things get off to a baffling start, as the film opens with the animated Popeye that we know and love showing up for about five seconds, only to cornily joke that he’s in the wrong movie.
Why would anyone think this was a good idea?
And as the film begins in earnest, it becomes clear that something is terribly terribly wrong. Popeye just wanders around running into bizarre characters who we are given no reason to care about and does nothing interesting or important at all. Meanwhile, his surroundings are amazingly intricate and beautiful. You can’t help but be impressed, but also can’t help getting bored.
You know your design team is good when the set from your terrible flop becomes a tourist destination in its own right.
As if the pointless meandering isn’t enough, the film is full of bizarre, stunted songs by Harry Nilsson. More often than not, a character or two will pick a statement and just repetitiously sing it for several minutes. Some examples include “He’s Large” about how large Bluto is, “I’m Mean” about how mean Bluto is, and “Everything is Food” about how everything is food. That last one doesn’t make any sense, but the movie seems to be really proud of itself anyway, as though repeating “everything is food” fifty or so times is deeply philosophical. It’s kind of like the movie got high for a bit and just started staring into its fridge and exclaimed, “But what is food really? Dude.”
Is that kettle food? Are those ladles food? Is Wimpy food?
I don’t get your philosophical point, song!
It’s a shame that there’s nothing going on and the songs are terrible and pointless, because there’s a fairly good cast assembled. Olive Oyl was the part that Shelley Duvall was born to play, and her performance sheds some beams of light onto an otherwise bleak landscape. Paul Dooley is also a pretty excellent bit of casting for Wimpy, but sadly, there really isn’t much for him to do.
I’d gladly pay you Tuesday, if I could just stop watching this terrible fucking movie.
Robert Altman can be a great director, but I think that he is the root of Popeye‘s problems. What Altman truly excels at is making situations seem natural. The general hubub and overlapping dialogue in films like MASH and Nashville provide a feeling of authenticity. Those films aren’t focused, but that’s okay, because neither is life. We’re just flies on the wall, watching human beings interacting. Good times. But when you try to project that style of realism onto a cartoon property, strange things start happening. A guy can burn himself on a stovepipe without the audience being able to tell whether it’s intended as a gag, or as a sad moment of life’s tragedy.
It’s honestly terrifying.
There will be minutes on end of a crowd quietly mumbling to itself about things, and then suddenly a weird sight gag will be introduced out of nowhere.
Bluto is seeing red… GET IT?
So many scenes in this movie could have been wonderfully comedic, but without sharp comic timing the pratfalls and zany sound effects just come off as terrifying. Honestly, I could go on all night pointing out strange awkward moments in this film, but I have to end somewhere. I have no problem seeing how this film has failed to go down as a true classic.
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
One of the odder choices the film made was having Popeye hate spinach. It’s a major plot point. But since the day can’t be saved unless he gains his iconic super-strength from that canned vegetable, we are treated to a scene where Bluto force-feeds our hero. It’s actually fairly disturbing, and I don’t feel good about it.
I’m very afraid that this is someone’s terrifyingly specific fetish.
The film is not without its supporters, but I just couldn’t take it. Watching it was like pulling teeth, and though the last five minutes are actually fairly entertaining, getting there was just too much trouble. Save yourself the trouble and just go watch some classic Popeye cartoons. Hell, even the really racist ones from WWII will give you a better time. Just do yourself a favor, and avoid the live action version entirely.
The Devil and Max Devlin (1981)