Reviewed by Mike Brannon
Rating: 1 Beans
ell blow me down! Yeah, this movie blows all right.
I must admit up front that not all bad movies are hated. Some of them are "guilty pleasures," movies that I could list a million reasons why they suck, artistically, production wise and plotwise, yet they are still kind of fun to watch. This one is a guilty pleasure for me, because I've been a Popeye fan since I was a kid. This was the first movie I remember really liking and going back to the theatre to see several times. As a kid and Popeye fan, the movie is great fun. For an adult and non-fan, this movie is surely flat, boring and confusing with a running time of roughly five hundred minutes.
The muddled plot in Popeye takes a viewing or two to follow:
The bulbous tar inexplicably ends up in Sweet Haven, and rents a room from the Oyl family. We finally find out, twenty minutes in, that he's looking for his father. After an absolutely pointless vignette (with the obligatory Popeye assbeating of a handful of mouthy longshoremen) the spinsterish Olive Oyl runs away from her own engagment party. You see, she was getting engaged to Bluto, the hulking, growling enforcer for the ship's hidden ruler, "The Commodore." Olive was saying nothing but great things about her fiancee for the whole movie, yet she bails out on him for some unknown reason. She and Popeye find an orphan child (Swee'pea), and the sight of the sailor man and his bride-to-be with a child makes Bluto furious enough to give Popeye a pounding and call off the engagement. He also uses his influence with the Commodore to tax the Oyls out of house and home. Cut to boxing nonsense that conveniently spares the Oyls from eviction (the prize was temporary tax exemption(!!!)) where Popeye fells a King-Kong-Bundyesque lummox named Oxblood Oxheart. About this time, it is discovered Swee'pea not only can understand humans, but is an all-knowing psychic that can answer any yes-no question.
Plot outline's still got a while to go, folks. Go get a soda.
Are you back? Good. Now, the ever-opportunist mooch Wimpy goes to the horse races to use Swee'peas power of dinovation to make a bundle for his hamburger funds. Olive and Popeye confront him, and the Olive decides it isn't such a bad plan after all, and tries the same tactic. Unbeknownst to all, Bluto is spying on the proceedings and sees the little shrimp using his fortunetelling skills. This all makes Popeye so mad he moves out, taking the little psychic with him, and moves into a warf storehouse. While there, he forcibly exiles the bloodsucking taxman from Sweethaven, and in the resulting confusing city-wide celebration, Wimpy kidnaps Swee'pea. Wimpy turns over the child to Bluto, who recompenses the tubby traitor with -- what else -- hamburgers. Bluto speaks to the hidden Commodore and demands his hidden treasure... and is refused, so he decides he can just get it himself since the baby can tell him where to look for it...(!). Meanwhile, Wimpy confesses his deed to Olive, and when they go to Bluto and The Commodore's Stronghold, a small steamer named "The Vile Body," they see the Commodore -- and surprise, surprise, it's Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye's long lost father. So they reconcile with Popeye and lead him back. Popeye is reunited with his surly father, and meanwhile Bluto kidnaps Swee'pea and Olive, and takes off in a boat to get the treasure. Poopdeck abruptly turns into a good guy character and goes with Popeye, The Oyls, Wimpy and Geezil in hot pursuit. A long, nonsensical chase results... to Scab Island, where more nonsense unfolds. Bluto gets the treasure but angers a killer octopus... then beats the stuffing out of Popeye. Poopdeck tricks Bluto to force-feeding Popeye his spinach, and, just like the cartoons, everything is settled by Popeye basically beating the living daylights out of all the bad guys and beasts.
If you can follow that entire story in one reading, you get a cookie. Robin Williams once said of this movie, "the plot makes sense if you watch it in reverse." But I don't really think that's the case, either. This movie is really a patchwork of about fifteen subplots all woven together. Many of the subplots are cartoonish to begin with, and frankensteining them together makes a pretty convoluted mess, as you can see.
What started me as a Popeye fan was a huge compilation of American Sunday Comics. There was an entire chapter for Popeye, containing hundreds of strips. So I imagine the movie was, and is, much more fun for me to spot the secondary characters in the background, characters I know very well.
Dick Tracy (1990) was another movie, while not great, that worked in several characters from the comic strip into one plot line. It worked well for that movie, I think. But "Popeye," while it includes many obscure characters only readers of the strip will recognize: Ham Gravy, Olive's old cowboy boyfriend / Bill Barnacle, Popeye's drunken friend / Chizzelflint the runty pawnbroker with his ever present keys and sunglasses / Oscar the dimwitted, cowardly barber and Harry Hotcash, Sweet Haven's slender incurable gambler.... NONE of them are given any characterization. I suppose there was enough going on anyway, but it really comes across as a gyp to this old-school Popeye fan.
And the characters they DID include, they could have done much more with. Castor's scheming, Wimpy's slick-talking and mooching, Geezil's near-obsessive hatred of Wimpy, and Rough-House's bully and bluster are all hinted at but they never go far enough with it.
Harry Nillson wrote the songs for "Popeye." While I think the late Mr. Nillson was a very gifted songwriter and I admire his work elsewhere, boy did it sink this clunker. The songs to this musical were dumb, contrived, and many of them are just excruciating to sit through. The music is by far the weakest part of this production. Several times I wanted Popeye to gulp down the spinach and go give the musical coordinator a beatdown.
The cartoony violence (Chizzelflint getting thrown through the ceiling, Popeye using Bolo's chin as a speed-bag, Popeye getting corkscrewed through the wharf by Bluto) in this movie, frankly, shows why this kind of stuff belongs in cartoons and not in live-action movies. In cartoons, it's funny. In live-action, it's just dumb.
And they have Popeye swear completely needlessly (well I guess he IS a sailor, after all), and it was obvious it was just to get that "PG" rating. I hate it when movies do that so obviously... but I can understand... in the 80s, no kid was caught dead going to a "G" movie.
But it's not all bad. The sets are gorgeous, and since Popeye has just come out on DVD, you can finally see the incredible, cartoony Sweet Haven sets in widescreen. The real treat is Robin William's performance, especially with those rapid-fire, under-his-breath zingers you have to keep alert to catch:
Popeye: "Your name is Olive OYL? Heh. [muttered] Funny you don't look greek to me... Oyl... that explains it... she's down a quart."
Shelly Duvall's Olive Oyl was awkward, nagging, snippy and vapid... in other words, it was a dead-on perfect performance (she looks so much like her anyway)! Paul L. Smith, who many BMN alums will remember as Falkon from Red Sonya, continues his reign as Hollywood's low-rent Pat Roach as the perfect Bluto... menacing, deadpan and obnoxious.
If you are a Popeye fan and can sit through the painful music numbers and the tangled mess of a plot, then tune in. Otherwise, I really would give this rickety schooner the old heave-ho, shipmate.
At least that opium-induced monstrosity, the "cute" Jeep wasn't in it. Thank God.
One bean, although non-Popeye fans may want to times that rating by seven or eight.
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