This is one of those movies I remember hearing about as a kid and always been curious to see how it plays out. It had a lot that interested me. An adventure on the sea, all sorts of strange and cool monsters as well as some neat looking visuals. Again, I never saw “Cabin Boy” but knew of its existence. And when the dawn of the Internet came into my reach and began expanding my knowledge of film history, I would learn that the cult following for this one was relatively small. In fact, this movie today is decreed as so bad that many disregard it as the worst or even straight bad. Which is a shame seeing there is clearly a lot of talent behind it. Chris Elliot not only stars but also writes the screenplay, Tim Burton (who couldn’t direct due to duties with Batman Returns) produces and there is clearly a lot of effort in trying to make this a grand eye-visual please. At least in where it tries to be grand on a small scale. So what is it about this movie that rubs people the wrong way?
Chris Elliot plays Nathaniel Mayweather, a self-centered snob with rich folks and crass dialogue that is sarcastically harsh but funny from time to time. And I know what your going to ask, it is one of those movies. The jerk goes on a journey of self-discovery and later learns to be a better person. The character arch isn’t that interesting but you have to give Chris Elliot credit. He really tries with the material even when the scenes he’s in are hit and miss. What works best of the character in my opinion in just how crass he is to not just the poor but even the higher-class too. It shows that he’s not the kind that is into his rich lifestyle but perceived as a grown up spoiled brat. Again most of the comedy works from his child-like antics but I can see this being done better with someone like Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman) or even Martin Short.
Anyway through a huge misunderstand with a direction sign, he boards a fishing boat on accident thinking at first its a theme boat. But as the captain and crew get annoyed of his snotty attitude, the salty sailors appoint him as a cabin boy and try to find a way to get rid of him. All the while, Nathaniel tries to make things work with the grumpy fishermen as he tries to find his way to Hawaii in order to meet with his father or something like that. I guess you can sort of see the big problem here. There is little to no plot to keep an interest from time to time. Most of the movie takes part on the boat and trying to find something funny with the characters. And to be honest, a comedy can work that way but viewers like to have a story to follow or at least something engaging. This is really the weakest problem as the snobby lad goes from serving fish stick kittens for dinner to swabbing the deck with nothing but soap and his tongue. Its a movie that really feeds on jokes and gags than really giving a compelling story.
Honestly when the comedy works, it does work. There’s a scene when Nathaniel is set adrift on a small raft and has these weird illusions which does take a weird but funny turn. Chris’s material shows his innocent comedy by trying to keep positive despite the harsh conditions from using cooking oil as sun screen to going bonkers. And that’s sort of this movie in a nutsell. Its one gag after another and you wait for the next to come by. Dare I say, its one of those kind of movies you watch with a friend just to see how they react. You either laugh along or pray there is a good joke.
Also for a movie that was given a low budget, I’m surprised to see how much effort they tried to put into the special effects. In an interview, director Adam Resnick mentioned how he had a hard time trying to make this movie as it was originally meant for Tim Burton to direct. And yeah, I can see where he is coming from. Trying to attempt one’s vision is not easy unless you have someone who understands what he or she had in mind. But I think it was a good attempt. Some of the designs in the monsters have a Burtonesque quality even if they feel simplistic. The visual look does have a Burtonesque quality even right down to those curtain backdrops. Again, “Cabin Boy” was made on a very low budget but you can tell they really tried to make something out of it. You still get some creative visuals like a ship in a stormy sea or a stop-motion ice monster. Even the make-up job on creatures like a half-man, half-shark being or a six armed goddess really shows what can be done with practical work. A testament to how well something real and in front of the camera can work compared to CGI.
Even the performances are not that bad either. Brian Doyle-Murry plays on the shipmates who knows his mythology and despite the movie he’s in you know he tries. There’s also some cameos by David Letterman and Andy Richter who get a funny line or two as well as some small running gags that are cute. I can’t say there is a bad performance or even one that was painful annoying. There were all around ok.
The only reason I can see why some viewers hated “Cabin Boy” on arrival was by how mismanaged the production was from the studio and what they didn’t know what to expect from its bizarre comedy. As a whole, the comedic tone is sort of a demented Popeye cartoon crossed with the surreal nature of Spongebob Squarepants. If this was done in better hands like Henry Selick, perhaps “Cabin Boy” would be molded into a better film. But from what I saw, I felt it was alright. I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it considering the continuing mixed reception that’s been building. It feels like a throwback to those fantasy movies of the 1930s with really cheap effects and silly stuff from time to time. But if that’s not your kind of fun, I understand. I just think its a silly comedy that really tried. Nothing too horrible or insulting to the eyes bad but far from perfect. Give it a rent and judge for yourself.
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.
He was more than just a comedian to many. Robin could harness a ball of energy so huge that you could feel like the whole room would explode with not just his presence but with laughter. Robin Williams was unexpected, funny, engaging but also heartwarming when he needed to be. With the untimely passing, I admit that I’m in the batch of those who will dearly miss such a comic legend. Rather than concentrate on how and why he is gone, I would to instead ask how did he become such a big name and why does Robin Williams mean so much to us.
Well, for those who saw him in his early years, they do remember his antics as the insane alien Mork from Ork in the 1970’s CBS sitcom Mork and Mindy. This was Robin at his finest acting like a little kid but in a grown man’s body. Mork was sent down to Earth because his happy spirit didn’t sit well with the other Orkians and thus is plopped on Earth to study how different it is and to keep him far away from his alien home world. Robin’s work on Mork and Mindy is truly an important place to begin. His character Mork, again, was like a grown up kid learning things for the first time. He can’t control his emotions, he’s innocent and doesn’t know who or what a true friend is but at times tries to be mature. It truly showcased the out of control and zany comedy that Robin would later place in his future roles. A notable moment is his taking soda for the first time and going on a sugar hype so huge it goes beyond the typical running around and bouncing off the walls that a kid would do.
It wouldn’t be long till he landed his first starting role in Popeye as the title character. While I have mixed thoughts about this odd musical, you can tell Robin was at his best trying to emulate the rough and tough attitude the muscle bound sailor contained. Sure, he it was hard to understand the dialogue he spoke (then again, Popeye did mutter a lot in the cartoons) but Robin carried through. He later went on to mention how much hell it was but when you see the movie, you can tell he really tried hard to bring such a difficult character to life. He muttered, sang and danced his way through. Even if the movie wasn’t a big hit, it didn’t mean the end for his film career.
It wouldn’t be till after a small selection of films that Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poet Society would launch him into a household name. This time, he balanced the amount of drama and comedy needed to bring such difficult roles to life. Most notable is the role of Professor Adrian Cronauer in Dead Poet Society who is rebellious but for a reason. To teach kids to go out and beyond the standard curriculum of teaching English and being free with what they do. Not limit themselves to what is handed in front of them but learn to be more passionate of their work and control of this own life. This is probably one of the more notable roles in Robin’s career.
As the 1990’s pressed on, he became somewhere between a bankable star and still a name many could recognize. Even for small roles like a mime instructor in Shakes the Clown or the King of the Moon in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, he still manged to bring his madcap comedy to the big screen treating small parts as notable highlights. Moviegoers and fans will probably remember him better as the Genie in Aladdin which brought notice of his mad style further as his high improve skills and zany wit gave such lift to a hand drawn creation that anyone could take and make it something basic. Robin owns this role with the same style he provided before with the usual juvenile approach to Mork but far more out of control with the physical aspect of moving his voice around from comedic delivery and balancing the heart of the character who wishes to be unleashed from his lamp to experience freedom.
If I was to recommend some movies to check out to explore his talent, I would label these as the essentials of his work. While Aladdin being one, Hook brought on his ability to be dramatic for a family film. Taking on the task of being a child acting mature, Williams was able to bring the flare and whim of Peter Pan while also a side of the character we never saw. What would it be like if the boy who never grew up decided to? Sure its a predicable romp seeing Peter as a father whose a workaholic, but when you take into considering the change he has later, Peter has to learn to keep his innocent so his kids can experience the fun of being a kid. Robin is able to make that transition believable because we know the right points and times he can have fun with his comedic timing. It adds to the childish aspect of Peter in the second half as he starts to understand who he is and how to keep it rather be focusing on his career and being the stereotypical model of a cold-nosed adult bent on work and nothing more.
The Fisher King is another great choice seeing Robin acting as a crazy homeless New Yorker that had a good life but taken away by tragedy. His manic energy is fuel for when his character Henry is obsessed with a quest for a mythical artifact but warm up to him when we see how fragile and shy he is. But the bigger film that I believe left a bigger impact and is the jewel of his work is Mrs. Doubtfire. Seeing him play a father struggling to meet his kids and that father’s fake identity being a British nanny showcases how Robin is able to channel between two different characters. I’m sure a lot of people (even as we speak) are thinking of revisiting this one more and I wouldn’t be surprised. Robin Williams had a lot to work with here being a father that is trying to reconnect with his kids and acting as a false character that is trying to restore order and be the figure they need to keep control in the house after a divorce.
Even when you look pass the later films he did that where either hit or miss, Robin knew how to perform and add to a character avoiding him from being a one-dimensional being. He exploded and breathed so much life to the point you could believe the “loonyness” he gave or the innocent yet weak side of the character. He was never shy of knowing when to stop his manic power and knew when to control it and be calm. He is a wonderful human being and to see him gone is an unfortunate time. But I wish for readers out there to not think of the passing. But think of the fun you had with him. Regardless of a movie he did being good or bad, he still brought that manic energy that defined him from other standard comedians. He was one of a kind and his legacy of laughs will live on in all of us. Till then, this is Morg signing off…nanu, nanu Robin…nanu, nanu…