What was charming and often rollicking in the comic strip, fails to come to life in this overblown and overlong movie musical, although there’s a nice opening number when the matchstick doors of the windblown shanties open and out pour the people of Popeye’s island, Sweet Haven – and the primitive sets and the imaginative costumes add a comic dimension to Jules Feiffer’s cartoon atmosphere.
Robin Williams (fresh from Mork and Mindy) is in the title role. With one eye closed, teeth sunk into a corncob pipe (that makes much of his dialogue incoherent) and beef-block arms that seem like wood cuttings, he is a marvellous Popeye. Shelly Duvall is a perfect Olive Oyl (although her flat, off-key singing will make you wince).
All of Popeye’s other friends and enemies are here, too: Paul Dooley, as the gluttonous hamburger-munching undertaker Wimpy; Paul Smith – the villainous prison sadist in Midnight Express (1978) – as the hog-growling, glass-eating Bluto; Ray Walston, as Poopdeck Pappy, the missing father Popeye’s been searching for; Olive’s blimp brother Castor Oyl; the gargantuan killer Oxblood Oxheart; and many others.
The humour, mostly slapstick, is only slightly more sophisticated than the Three Stooges. Toward the end, Popeye downs the spinach and the film perks up, but it’s too late.
Swee’pea is played by a baby named Wesley Ivan Hurt, who is actually director Altman’s grandchild in real life.
Popeye was shot at Anchor Bay in Malta where Sweethaven was constructed as 19 free-standing buildings, some at precarious cartoon-like angles. “There was a lot of cocaine and a lot of drugs going around,” recalled director Robert Altman. It was to be Altman’s last studio film.