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Popeye DVD Review

Popeye (1980) movie poster Popeye

Theatrical Release: December 12, 1980 / Running Time: 114 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Robert Altman / Writers: Jules Feiffer (screenplay), E.C. Segar (characters)

Cast: Robin Williams (Popeye), Shelley Duvall (Olive Oyl), Ray Walston (Poopdeck Pappy), Paul Dooley (Wimpy), Paul L. Smith (Bluto), Richard Libertini (Geezil), Donald Moffat (The Taxman), MacIntyre Dixon (Cole Oyl), Roberta Maxwell (Nana Oyl), Donovan Scott (Castor Oyl), Allan Nicholls (Rough House), Wesley Ivan Hurt (Swee'pea), Bill Irwin (Ham Gravy), Peter Bray (Oxblood Oxheart), Linda Hunt (Mrs. Oxheart), Dennis Franz (Spike)

Songs: "Sweethaven", "Blow Me Down", "Food, Food, Food", "He's Large", "I'm Mean", "Sailin'", "I Yam What I Yam", "He Needs Me", "Swee'Pea's Lullaby", "It's Not Easy Being Me", "Kids", "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man", "Din' We" (deleted)

Buy Popeye from Amazon.com

Dealt with a moviegoing audience that had largely abandoned them, the Walt Disney Studios decided to do some experimenting near the beginning of the 1980s. Disney challenged the public's conception of their family-friendly brand name with edgier fare that earned the company its first "PG" ratings.
After nearly twenty years of limiting live-action output to mostly fantastic comedies (with the occasional musical or Western bent), Disney tried its hand at serious sci-fi (The Black Hole, Tron), suspense (The Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes), and coming-of-age drama (Tex).

Around the same time, the Mouse did something it hadn't in the nearly thirty years since Walt Disney and his brother Roy established Buena Vista, their own distribution arm. They conspired with another studio. The studio was Paramount Pictures, where Disney CEO-to-be Michael Eisner was then president and chief operating officer. Disney and Paramount agreed to co-produce a live-action feature-film version of Popeye, adapted from E.C. Segar's comic strips and the series of Fleischer Studios cartoons that had rivaled Walt's shorts decades earlier. Disney and Paramount would split the costs and the profits. Paramount was the chief distributor of U.S. exhibitions, while Disney handled the movie's theatrical release in overseas markets.

Popeye had a lot going for it: an accomplished director in Robert Altman (Oscar-nominated for both M*A*S*H and Nashville), a promising rising star in Robin Williams (then known as Mork from television's "Mork & Mindy"), a talented songwriter in Harry Nilsson (the man who put da lime in da "Coconut"). It also had a portion of built-in viewers thanks to the popularity and prevalence of televised Popeye cartoons.

New to Sweethaven, Popeye (Robin Williams) pursues a room for "renk" in the Oyl residence. Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) is not pleased with the way she looks in this red dress.

In his big screen debut, Robin Williams dons an unnaturally fiery head of hair and a more convincing pair of forearm bulges as the title character. Upon arriving in the harbor town of Sweethaven, Popeye's unusual dimensions, ever-squinted right eye, and peculiar style of speech quickly make him an outsider. He takes residence in the home of the Oyls, a well-off family whose lanky daughter Olive (Shelley Duvall) will, of course, pose a love interest. (Popeye marked the sixth and final collaboration between Altman and Duvall; the actress would appear as Jack Nicholson's wife in The Shining the same year before pursuing several lines of hour-long fairy tale adaptations for TV.) At the beginning of the film, however, Olive is on the verge of getting engaged to Captain Bluto (Paul L. Smith), a bearded monster of a man whose grumblings literally sound like those of an irate beast.

In preparing for the engagement party her family is throwing, Olive has difficulty coming up with reasons for her attachment to Bluto. She does this in song, repeating the line "He's large" while fumbling for better rationale as her girlfriends half-heartedly agree. Downstairs, the fiancι-to-be impatiently waits with a scowl that draws concern from the Oyls' family and friends. Olive quietly skips out and in doing so, she encounters Popeye and, not long after, an anonymous baby (Wesley Ivan Hurt, the director's grandson) that has been left to the two. Needless to say, Bluto and Olive's relationship is called off. Bluto makes the split official by pounding Popeye, who is driven into the ground like a screw.

A slight episodic fashion greets the middle of the movie, as Popeye, Olive Oyl, and the baby (who Popeye has named Swee'pea) form an unconventional family. With severed ties dissolving the protection offered by Bluto, the Oyls are subjected to the many whimsical taxes of the Taxman (Donald Moffat) and fall into poverty. Popeye proves his strength by knocking out Oxblood Oxheart (Peter Bray), "The Dirtiest Fighter Alive", in an afloat boxing ring. On learning of Swee'pea's potent foresight, the opportunistic Wimpy (Paul Dooley) takes the foundling to Sweethaven's gambling center to get rich on horse races (of the mechanical variety).

There are great depths to the anger of Bluto (Paul L. Smith). Wimpy (Paul Dooley) and Swee'pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt) enjoy a little gambling at Sweethaven's race track.

The film moves to a conclusion with a turn-of-events that offers a new problem (the kidnapping of Swee'pea) in addition to a potential resolution to Popeye's reason for being in Sweethaven. A salty commodore (Ray Walston) with a squint, corncob pipe, and set of forearms that bear plenty of resemblance to our protagonist is at the center of both subplots. Before the end credits roll, Popeye will reluctantly eat raw canned spinach to unleash unmatched power and he will sing "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man", fulfilling two of the character's most iconic images.

On the whole, critics were fairly harsh towards Popeye, but many offered hearty praise, including Roger Ebert, who rated the movie a half-star shy of perfection. Most reviews celebrated the casting (particularly, Shelley Duvall's ability to meet the physical and emotional demands of Olive Oyl) and the production design by Wolf Kroeger. The critiques that labeled the outing a mess didn't do too much damage to the film's financial success. While not in the league of December of 1980's biggest theatrical hits (9 to 5, Stir Crazy, and the Clint Eastwood/orangutan sequel Any Which Way You Can), Popeye's nearly $50 million domestic gross more than doubled its estimated $20 million budget and put it among the year's top dozen earners. Even ignoring a quarter-century of ticket price inflation, Popeye's intake dwarfs those of modern-day musicals Rent and The Producers and compares favorably with 1982's Annie, 2004's The Phantom of the Opera, and Moulin Rouge.

While box office success is not the best indicator of quality, Popeye's mid-range success in theaters and home video accurately reflects a movie that is a moderate triumph. Adapting comic books for the big screen has proved to be a lucrative task and this decade alone has seen many critically-acclaimed blockbusters hail from visual-oriented print. Most of these hits, however, have been sci-fi/action pictures starring mutant superheroes haunted by very human issues. Popeye is nothing of the sort, thus putting it more in the league of the TV 'toon-to-film adaptations, a far trickier feat that has been attempted and rewarded far fewer times. As Popeye's more prominent path to the public consciousness involved animation, that puts this musical/comedy in the same class of live-action motion pictures as the much-maligned Scooby-Doo (2002), Garfield (2004), and Fat Albert (2003). But in Popeye, Altman is not interested in lampooning or parodying the animated character or his universe. The director and writer Jules Feiffer (a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for The Village Voice) are more concerned with bringing Sweethaven to life in a faithful and fun way.

"No resemblance", claims Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston), but Popeye thinks otherwise. Note to self: when fighting Popeye, it's a good idea to NOT feed spinach directly into his mouth.

Perhaps some of the hostility towards Popeye stems, as it certainly does for a film like Garfield, from an appreciation for the source material. The Popeye of Elzie Segar's Thimble Theater series existed for fifty years before a frame of the Paramount-Disney film was shot and anything with that kind of lasting power is sure to have a fervent fanbase. But even someone with no prior knowledge or fondness for the sailor of comics or cel animation could easily come away hating Popeye. The world of Sweethaven is populated by bright, larger-than-life characters, which is no strange thing for early 20th century cartoons and comics. Something is lost in translation, or maybe gained, so that the port village seems almost ordinary yet artificial on film.

That wouldn't be so pronounced if attention were paid to the personalities, but the film keeps them at a distance. Literally. The 2.35:1 widescreen framing does allow one plenty of opportunities to admire the impressive world realized on the tiny island country of Malta. (Twenty-eight years after construction, the film set remains a Maltese tourist attraction.) But it also keeps us at bay from the characters; whom our sympathies lie with practically require previous knowledge of Segar's world. The treatment also makes the movie feel more like a portrait of life in Sweethaven than a tale about Popeye, even if he's often at the foreground.

Popeye himself is, for many viewers, one of the biggest obstacles to enjoying the film. The character mutters throughout the film and is unintelligible about half the time. Technical disconnect results from this, as Williams' garbled asides required looping that make the muttering seem to exist in a space outside the film, almost like an amusingly inarticulate director's commentary. There are some laughs to be had in Popeye's rants and these boast, like much of the film's comedy, a welcome understated sense of humor. In fact, some may find the semi-under-the-breath remarks preferable to the loud, rapid, voice-changing brand of comedy Williams is better known for.

Popeye, Swee'pea, and Olive Oyl: Not your typical family, but they'll do. Popeye stands up to Oxblood Oxheart (Peter Bray), the "Dirtiest Fighter in the World."

At nearly two hours in length, Popeye is a little overlong.
While diverting, the middle stretches are most conducive to trimming. Harry Nilsson's songs (he is responsible for all but Popeye's most famous anthem) are not traditional and they are not staged in a normal movie musical fashion. That makes them easier to swallow for those opposed to musicals but also a little more forgettable. They're also a bit forced, feeling squeezed in as they run in succession leading up to the final act.

One final person who deserves mention on Popeye is Robert Evans. The former child actor was riding a more than ten-year run as an independent producer (credited or not) for such Paramount hits as Rosemary's Baby, The Godfather, Serpico, and Chinatown. Evans reportedly butted heads repeatedly with Altman over Popeye, which would temporarily be Evans' final project as related drug and legal problems would sideline him for much of the 1980s. Before the pieces fell into place, Evans had been trying to get Popeye made for several years. Among the directors who almost made it: Mike Nichols (The Graduate), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) and Hal Ashby (Being There). Among the stars nearly attached to play Olive Oyl were Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin; Dustin Hoffman was set to play Popeye but is said to have dropped out over the hiring of Jules Feiffer as writer.

Faced with a difficult task, Altman and company do a fair job; this offbeat Popeye is not terrific but it is far less painful than you might imagine and some would have you believe. At twenty-seven, the movie has aged relatively well.

Disney would enter just one further co-production with Paramount on Dragonslayer, a dark fantasy released the following year. In the more than twenty-five years since Popeye and Dragonslayer were made, Disney has collaborated with various studios, regularly blurring the definition of "a Disney movie" for those of us who care. They've acquired films for theatrical or home video release, handled distribution limited to certain parts of the globe, and entered into long-term relationships to oversee the journeys of both homegrown and foreign films to the public's eye. Back then, it was an uncommon occurrence for Disney, which continues to distribute international videos and DVDs of these two films.

Buy Popeye on DVD from Amazon.com. DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (English)
Subtitles: English
Closed Captioned
Release Date: June 24, 2003
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $9.98 (Reduced from $19.98)
Black Keepcase


On DVD, Popeye retains its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and that is essential. Enhanced for 16x9 televisions, the transfer boasts an element that is very clean. Adding to Paramount's impressive list of visually sound DVDs, Popeye doesn't noticeably err in the picture department. Italian cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno's photography looks good and nearly new.
The movie utilizes a lot of wide shots but detail remains sufficient in both these and the rare close-up or medium shot. The only issue that is suspect is the look of the film; though Olive Oyl wears her traditional bright red top, colors seem fairly muted on the whole. That may be deliberate, to reflect the unspecified period setting. Or it might not be, meaning the palette is faded or less vibrant than intended. I'm betting, however, that this is how Popeye has always looked and thus the presentation is as good as you'd hope from standard DVD.

While the only language offered is the original English, you can choose from a Dolby Surround track or a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Both sound very fine, opening up appropriately for set pieces and musical numbers. The 5.1 mix actually delivers some channel separation. Note that in both versions, the soundtrack is plagued with a substantial amount dialogue that has been clearly looped. That means there's little distortion in the recordings but also that some suspension of disbelief is required to accept the universe as living and real. Once again, though, that is a quality of the film and not a shortcoming of the DVD.


Long stingy when it comes to extras, Paramount offers no bonus features for Popeye, not even the theatrical trailer that some of the studio's works are treated to. There is not even an insert to list the twelve scenes that underserve the film. The menus are as understated as everything else about this presentation, utilizing a cloudy backdrop and repositioned poster or stock artwork with no animation or music.

Olive Oyl is oh so happy that "he needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me"! He's Popeye the Sailor Man!


A big ambitious production like Popeye demands to be labeled either a grand success or a severe failure. Most viewers feel compelled to place the movie in one of those two categories. I can't. Its hits and misses ought to be as noticeable as its hero's robust forearms, but even after multiple viewings, I have trouble deciding what's right and what's wrong. Beyond proclaiming that this 1980 movie is no masterpiece and no disaster, I can merely urge you to see it and decide for yourself. A mixed bag that's a bit overlong, rather odd, and yet still plenty likable, Popeye is as strange a collaboration as you might expect from the diverse parties involved. Though co-financed by Disney and brandished one of their films overseas, this doesn't really fit into the studio's live-action canon creatively, aside from the fact that it is surrounded by several other experimental oddities that the passing of time has yet to truly honor.

With fine 16x9-enhanced picture and sound but nary an extra, Paramount's DVD currently stands with a sub-$10 list price. That's about as low as studio DVDs go today and it puts this basic but sufficient disc where it should be, a comfortable blind buy for those who are interested, especially on a sale that knocks a few bucks off SRP. After years of skimping on bonus features, Paramount has become a leader in re-releases. In doing so, the studio has revisited quite a bit of '80s fare and they'll continue to do so in the months ahead. It remains to be seen if Popeye makes the cut of those popular enough to treat to new bonus features, but stranger things have definitely happened.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

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Related Reviews:
Popeye the Sailor, Volume One: 1933-1938
Directed by Robert Altman: Nashville • 3 Women
Dragonslayer • Pete's Dragon (High-Flying Edition) • The Black Hole • The Fox and the Hound (25th Anniversary Edition)
Starring Robin Williams: Old Dogs • Good Morning, Vietnam • Mrs. Doubtfire • Dead Poets Society • Aladdin • The Night Listener
Shelley Duvall: The Shining • Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Very First Alvin Show
Tex • Something Wicked This Way Comes • Tron • Return to Oz
Inspector Gadget • High School Musical • Newsies • Bride & Prejudice • Bedknobs and Broomsticks
The Muppet Movie • The Devil and Max Devlin • The Brave Little Toaster • Cars

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Reviewed March 12, 2007.