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Blu-ray Review: Popeye: 40th Anniversary Edition

December 1, 2020

By John Corrado

Robert Altman’s live action musical version of Popeye, which features Robin Williams in the title role and a selection of songs by Harry Nillson, is a film that has gone through a number of critical reevaluations over the years since it was first released in 1980.

But I’m not sure if a clear consensus has ever been reached on the film, which is viewed by some as a notorious flop, and by others as a misunderstood classic. Either way, Popeye is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, and Paramount is honouring this milestone by releasing the film for the first time ever on Blu-ray today.

Inspired by E.C. Segar’s comic strip, which was turned into a classic cartoon series in the 1930s, the film follows Popeye the Sailor (Williams) as he arrives in the town of Sweethaven, searching for his long-lost father (Ray Walston). It’s here that he meets Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall), who is about to be married off to Bluto (Paul L. Smith). Popeye and Olive Oyl soon find themselves caring for a lost baby named Swee’pea (played by Altman’s infant grandson Wesley Ivan Hurt), leading to friction in the town.

The film was the brainchild of famed producer Robert Evans and cartoonist turned screenwriter Jules Feiffer, who spent several years trying to get it to the screen. A rare co-production between Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Productions, Popeye was intended to be a big holiday hit when it was released just before Christmas in 1980, but only grossed sixty million at the box office. The film is notorious for having gone over budget by several million dollars, ballooning to a then-huge $20 million, with the production going several weeks over schedule and being faced with numerous challenges.

It received a lot of negative press upon its release, with many critics, (save for Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who both praised the film’s vision), not knowing how to react to what essentially amounts to a big budget, live action cartoon. While imperfect, Altman’s film certainly isn’t lacking in terms of ambition, and it remains a unique entry into his filmography. The director does do an admirable job of capturing the feel of a cartoon with real actors, which was clearly his intent.

Williams, in his first major film role, delivers a committed performance as Popeye, having to work with bulgy prosthetic arms, one eye closed, and a pipe perpetually in his mouth. While he was already a star due to the sitcom Mork & Mindy, which was still on the air at the time, the film’s reputation as a box office flop was actually a setback for his big screen career. Duvall, (who also starred in The Shining in 1980, another famously hard production), is an ideal choice for the part of Olive Oyl, a character that she seems born to play. Incidentally, Popeye and The Shining remain the pinnacles of her film career, which stalled out shortly after.

The film was shot entirely in Malta, on an elaborate set that remains there as a tourist attraction, and the production design is impressive, with the entire town of Sweethaven having been built by scratch. Like I said, Popeye is certainly an ambitious film, but that’s not to say it’s entirely successful, either. The pacing is uneven and the film doesn’t really have enough plot to fill out a nearly two hour running time, with a sort of loose, meandering tone that often feels unfocused.

I had admittedly never seen Popeye before now, and the film is, at the very least, a fascinating piece of cinematic history that deserves to be preserved on Blu-ray. Neither the unwatchable disaster nor the misunderstood masterpiece that some have made it out to be, this is instead a flawed but interesting attempt at recreating a classic cartoon in live action.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a couple of new featurettes that shed some light on the notorious production. A code for a digital copy is also included.

Return to Sweethaven: A Look Back With Robin and the Altmans (13 minutes, 29 seconds): This new featurette stitches together pieces from old interviews with Robert Altman (conducted in 1999) and Robin Williams (conducted in early 2014 for Ron Mann’s film Altman) alongside a new interview with prop master Stephen Altman, Robert Altman’s son. It offers a good overview of the film’s storied production, and doesn’t gloss over the disastrous qualities of the shoot either, which is pretty refreshing for a Blu-ray bonus feature.

The Popeye Company Players (9 minutes, 34 seconds): This featurette focuses on the film’s cast, including the interesting detail that many of the background actors were actually circus performers. It’s basically a continuation of the first piece, combining different clips from the same interviews 

Popeye’s Premiere (2 minutes, 40 seconds): A slideshow of images from the film’s premiere on December 6th, 1980 in Hollywood, California.

The Sailor Man Medleys (35 minutes, 24 seconds): A compilation of the movie’s musical numbers, allowing us to watch them on their own, separate from the film.

Theatrical Trailer (1 minute, 53 seconds)

Popeye: 40th Anniversary Edition is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 113 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: December 1st, 2020

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