When I was a kid, I watched “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons. The cartoon character was created in 1929 and became the subject of theatrical cartoon shorts for Paramount Pictures in 1933 and continued until 1957. The 1980 live-action musical feature film that starred Robin Williams as Popeye is a scattered mess of gags that aren’t particularly funny.
The cartoon always had the old-fashioned feeling Olive Oyl needed to be rescued. Popeye would do the rescuing. Bluto was the villain. In 1960, a new cartoon series was ordered by King Features Syndicate and ran for only two years.
Robin Williams plays his role straight. His character does get to mumble which if I remember correctly is what the cartoon character did, but he’s the straight man and the humor is in the situation. The problem is that we don’t get any of the fantastical characters like Jeep and that most of the humor is dated. Popeye was reassuring in its regular schedule of events. Wednesday would ask for hamburgers. Bluto would try to steal something or take Olive Oyl away. Popeye would save her by gaining strength through eating spinach.
There was nothing I recall as wildly funny as the Bugs Bunny cartoons. The movie does benefit from having music provided by Harry Nilsson, but that’s about it.
A lot of detail has gone into making the sets in Malta, but even that old-fashioned, poor man’s 1930-ish look help the script. Dick Tracy had style and atmosphere, but there’s nothing attractive about this stylistically. This is like Depression era clothing with a bit of exaggeration.
Duvall makes a good clutzy Olive Oyl, but there’s nothing funny about her homeliness or her screechy neediness in the 2010s and not even in the 1980s. We know that with the proper script, Williams can bring the over-the-top to any character and hijack a role into eye-rolling cartoon land, but he isn’t given the chance here. Popeye is neither pathetically sad like a kid who has lost his favorite toy or just realized Santa Claus is never coming back nor the zany take-no-prisoners funny talk of the salesman on speed.
“Popeye” was one of Robin Williams more prominent roles early in his career, but it was also one of his worst. Reportedly, this Paramount and Disney co-production came into being after Paramount lost the bidding war for the musical “Annie.”
“Popeye” is available for instant streaming on Netflix.