Rental Corner: “Popeye” slow and messy but underrated
Why is it hard to adapt a classic cartoon into a big screen venture these days? I kept asking myself that when it comes to today’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” or the “The Last Airbender,” they fall very short of being in the style of its two dimensional source or feel way off. But then, you have those adaptions that come very close to capturing the spirit and charm. Case and point is “Popeye” which is the usual butt of many jokes in live-action adaptions. Interestingly enough is the split vote on Rotten Tomatoes with viewers disliking it more than critics. I want to say this movie does have a cult following and I believe it does. But I feel more tend to have a deaf ear then give it a watch. And I can see why.
Robin Williams stars as the title character who is gruff, tough as nails and can knock a man down in one swing. Robin doesn’t do a bad job looking and acting like everyone’s favorite sailor but there are times when I feel he’s restrained a bit. Robin Williams is best known for his unexpected improvisation but there are times when I feel like he’s sticking to the script too much and less making the character of Popeye his own. There are times when he does shine in scenes like talking about the times with his dad and getting into fist fights. But when he talks, it feels straight from the script but under Robin’s delivery.
Much like the cartoon character, Popeye mumbles his way through the picture as we not only try to understand what he is saying half the time (and there are moments when we can) while also trying to understand the plot. He lands in a small sea side town called Sweet Heaven that looks impressive and has cheery and nervous inhabitants that live on washed out buildings that have a depressing but unique charm to it. Wooden planks hold up house and restaurants that serve endless hamburgers that feel like cross between a tourist attraction at Universal Studios and a rocky rundown village.
I guess the reason why the place is nice but sad looking is because its run by heavy-weight sailor Bluto (Paul L. Smith) constantly taxes the town and treats it like money pit than a place. I want to say he is the villain of the movie (and he partly is) but he doesn’t have much motive other than trying to court the Oyl family’s daughter while seeking the buried treasure of his boss named the Commodore. Speaking of the Oyl’s, I have to give props for Shelley Duvall and her potray of Olive Oyl who not only looks the part but even goes as far to channel the feisty but manic nature of the character. Bluto plans to wed her but that doesn’t go over easily when the tough as nails Popeye takes up residence in the Oyl household.
I know your at this point wondering what the main story to all of this and the answer is really none. I guess you could argue its about Popeye trying to fit in with the strange cast of characters ranging from a man named Whimpy (Paul Dooley) who has a constant hunger for hamburgers to trying to take care of an orphan child name Swee’Pea. There is a reason the squinty-eyed sailor is in Sweet Heaven as he explains the search for his father but that never comes back until the last third as a big twist. The whole movie is really on auto-pilot as it lazily shifts from one character to the next and feels all over the place. But at the same time, your focus is really on the characters with their interactions to this and here is where I feel is the heart of the movie.
The trouble with today’s adaptions is to give characters a motive or shoehorn in a way to make them understandable with today’s audience. I feel this take on Popeye is spot on despite its faults. It doesn’t need pop culture references or modern day lingo. One character comes in with a problem and it somehow builds into a story. Perhaps that is not the best way to do a story but it works fine here. If you take into consideration the many adventures of Popeye from his comic strip and the Paramount cartoons, they were very much laid back stories that kept building and building to something. The difference is that the cartoons where short and had a focus. The movie, however, tosses a lot at the screen and some of it sticks or doesn’t.
I feel its too late to mention that “Popeye” is a musical and the origin of how this came to be is stranger. Producer Robert Evens wanted to do an adaption of Annie but lost the big bidding war to the film rights (seriously, EVERY STUDIO WANTED TO DO “Annie” AT THE TIME). So the logical choice was to make a movie musical close to Annie while using a different character. The good news is that “Popeye” beat Annie to the punch as the first comic strip character to have a movie musical but the bad news is that we got “Popeye” as the first movie musical based on a comic strip character. Most of the songs do work like Popeye’s “I Yam What I Yam” that add character but some just feel unneeded like a rant on “Kids” or Olive’s “He’s Needs Me” which feels off tune and uninspired. I can’t say the singing is that bad seeing its director Robert Altman chose to do the singing live (with the exception of Robin doing ADR) but if only there was more spark to the lyrics than the delivery.
To say “Popeye” is the worst live-action adaption is an understatement. Its not the best, but far from being bad. I feel the cast is having a good time getting into their roles, the sets do look impressive and there is some unique charm to all of it. I just wish there was more of a focus on story but I don’t think the focus veers too much. Its obvious its trying to be its own “Superman: The Movie” by having the story focus on more character than plot but plot can drive characters. In the world of “Popeye,” characters creature situations rather than have situations effect them and as they move about, we the viewer wonder what story we got to work with. Other than that, when you compare it to the movies of today and what they can do with CGI animation and the style of juvenile writing, its nice to have something different after all. The slapstick works once in a while and Altman pays great attention to what viewers see on the screen (even though I wish there were close-up shots for impact). On the whole, its tough to the finish and needs to be rediscovered.
Posted on September 6, 2014, in Rental Corner and tagged Annie, cartoon, comic strip, live action adaption, Paramount Pictures, Popeye, rental corner, Rober Evens. movie musical, Robert Altman, Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.