MeekinOnMovies On….Popeye (1980)

“I don’t have a photograph, but you can have my footprints. They’re upstairs in my socks.”
  – Groucho Marx

My sister grew up the biggest Michael Jackson fan. The weekend she visited me in Chicago, he died. She couldn’t sleep. She loved Jackson, and played his music with pride through the trials and creepy accusations, trusting the art and not the artist, while every person she knew, myself included, would continuously take cheap shots. 

Hours after the news broke, we walked down Michigan Avenue and cars rolled by blaring ‘Beat It’,
‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, and other classic Jackson songs. My sister…was annoyed. She liked Jackson when no one else did, and now everyone was back
on his bandwagon like they never once called him a pedophile or pervert. It didn’t feel…fair.

But it wasn’t up to my sister to to judge how people took Jackson’s death, just like it’s not up to me to judge how folks react to Robin Williams’, as memes and quotes and ‘best tribute yet’ articles take the place of genuine original thought. So, I thought late Tuesday evening, What can I watch with Williams in it? How can I honor Mr. Williams’ legacy in a way that isn’t typical? I looked at The Fisher King, Awakenings, and our family’s decades old Aladdin, The Bird Cage, and Mrs. Doubtfire VHSes. Then I saw it.

The Popeye movie. One of the first movies I ever watched. My great Grandpa brought it sometime before he died, and was babysitting, so I must have been under 5 years old. I hated it. What a perfect little personal tribute, re-visiting a movie with Robin Williams in it I watched before I even knew who Robin Williams was, before the world even knew who Robin Williams he really was. Surely, this movie would make a bit more sense now that I’ve maturagated.

Well, no.

Robert Altman’s 1980 Popeye is…inexplicable, but I’ll try to explain it anyway. As a prelude, here’s Shelly Duvall singing a most remorseful song about Bluto’s sole redeeming quality.


If the name Popeye, or Whimpy, Bluto, Swee’ Pea, and Olive Oyl don’t
ring any bells for you, worry not, whipper-snapper, knowledge of the Popeye canon will only
serve to make this movie even more baffling than it already is. The setup is a Popeye origin story. Popeye, played by Robin
Williams, arrives in town via dinghy in search of his pappy. All he has
to go on is a picture frame…which says “my pappy” on it – one of
numerous sight gags played totally straight, and it’s accompanied by a heart-wrenching moment as Popeye says if he can’t find his Pappy, worse case scenario they’ll see each other in 30 or so years when they’re both dead.

Popeye rents a
room from the Oyl family, and the rest is more or less
history. A love triangle (sorta), an abandoned baby, happily paying
Tuesday for a hamburger today, spinach, “I yam what I yam and that’s
all that I yam,” and so on. The gang’s all here as they say.

But…man is this Popeye movie weird. Not bad weird, but not good
weird, either. Picture watching a full grown man in a diaper juggling
ostrich eggs on a pogo stick to ‘Oliver!’ soundtrack. You have no idea what the hell is going on, but it’s clear a lot of love and time and care went into creating…whatever it’s supposed to be.

best way to describe the whole affair would be to imagine if the 1960s

Batman sitcom took itself even the smallest bit seriously. Silly
costumes, prat falls, sight gags, sound effects – they’re all present
and accounted for, but none of the characters, not a one, wink at the
camera to let us know this is a comedy,  even as Bluto stalks around a
pulling flowers off a daisy going “She loves me, she loves me not” and
pummeling anyone in front of him whenever he lands of “loves me not”.
Then Bluto busts out into a song called “I’m mean” and you just kinda go
with it. It’s camp without the marshmallows.

But if anyone can own a movie dances the line between comedy, musical, drama, and high-art farce, it’d be Robin Williams. And Williams’ Popeye is…interesting. A great deal of his dialog
had to be re-recorded as the microphones couldn’t pick up his kind of low, mumbling, Nick-Nolte-after-a-bender growl, and often times his mouth doesn’t sync up with
the audio, resulting in this live action flick having cartoon-esque voice over work that’s kind of hard to hear sometimes.

But when it works, it works. Popeye is a kind man who means well despite his total lack of education. The movie’s most interesting moments feature Popeye standing up for himself or others, and despite routinely butchering the English language – “Another thing I got is a sensk of humiligration. Now, maybe you swabs
can pool your intelligensk and sees that I’m axking you for an
apologeky.” – his noble spirit shines through loud and clear.

Anytime Popeye subverts the idea of what a ‘tough guy sailor’ should be, it captures a strange kind of magic. Especkially during a boxing match where his foe’s mother is ring-side and Popeye refuses to fight in her presence. The scene is so chaotic and silly and flat out weird, that this subtle gesture results in a busted gut. There’s another tender moment, where Popeye (Or Mr. Eye as the Oyl family refers to him as) reflects on the abandoned baby he and Olive came across – “If I was gonna be Swee’Pea’s mother, I should’ve at least let Olive be
his father. Or viska versa. I ain’t man enough to be no mother.”.

Thus, Popeye is not easy. It’s not an action movie, that’s for damn sure, and it’s a strangely subtle comedy considering the insanity of the wardrobe and forearms on display. So, we’re in a territory where I have absolutely no idea what the
f--- to think. The characters are
nothing if not interesting, the scenery is nothing if not pretty, music nothing if not catchy, and
there’s certainly nothing else on God’s green earth like it.
There’s also the fact superstar producer Robert Evans got busted trying
to buy cocaine on set, and Director Robert Altman spent so much money
on building the sets that they forgot to leave room in the
budget for believable special effects so the big climatic fight at the
end feels a little..flaccid, which is to say the story behind the movie
is just as bizarre as the movie itself. 

Popeye Village still stands in Malta.

Aside from whether or not Popeye is ‘good’, the message it communicates absolutely is. The message? A person need not be intelligent to be a good person. Nor do they need to be articulate to be polite, or educated to be smart. They need not be well balanced or large or rich or pay for their meals. They need to mean well, and do well for others when they can, and that’s all you can really hope for in another soul.
Like the late Robin Williams, “Popeye” the character and Popeye the movie are enigmatic. They’re all surface level cartoons, larger than life, silly, and maybe you only understand about half of what’s coming out of their mouths and a third of what’s turning the gears behind the curtain. Regardless, there’s a zen-like simplicity to Popeye and his “I am what I am” mantra. We are who we are, and that’s all that we are, but unfortunately, for many of us, that’s not enough.