This is what happens if you don’t try to balance comic-ness with realism, and go all-out for trying to turn live actors into funny-looking drawings. Robin Williams as Popeye, for instance, has prosthetic forearms. Somebody had to try it once, and Robert Altman, of all people, volunteered for the sacrifice. The result is one fucking weird movie.
So far, that’s not necessarily a negative. If done right, it might have been fun. But no such luck, this movie is awful. It won Worst Picture from The Stinkers, and was an enormous box-office flop after Paramount promoted it as their big holiday release.
The opening sequence is loaded with constant slapstick, completely forced and nonbelievable. If you liked the “funny” opening credit sequence of Superman III, you’ll love this. No, on second thought, you’ll probably still hate it. And it doesn’t stop — it goes on, and on, and on, and on... the constant use of bogus slapsticular moments, which basically amount to people falling over on purpose and doing themselves deliberate random injuries for no reason, becomes part of the background of every scene. This kind of thing worked okay in a newspaper comic strip, where you needed a gag or two each day and then you’d wait a day for the next one, but it just does not work here. And the lack of successful laughs kills the whole movie dead.
An added side effect is that the pace ends up being slow and boring, largely because of so much time being wasted on unfunny gags.
I’d say the worst part of this movie is the soundtrack. No, I don’t mean the retarded songs — yes, that’s right, it’s a musical! — I mean the entire audio mix. Let me put it this way. The film I watched immediately before first seeing Popeye was A Chinese Ghost Story. And you know how in cheesy old martial arts movies dubbed into English, the audio effects are all really cheap and phony sounding, and the minor characters often sound like just two or three people? This one sounded like that, because it had apparently been dubbed from Mandarin into Cantonese before being subtitled, thereby combining the disadvantages of both dubbing and subtitling... Well, Popeye's audio is every bit as bad. Half the time when Popeye mutters, you see only vague lip movements and then some Robin Williams wisecrackery is dubbed on top, and it doesn’t match at all. Most sound effects are very obviously fake, even the ones that have nothing to do with gag moments. Did Altman do this on purpose to make it more comicful? It looks like they just got really crappy sound on the set and had to redo it all, and simply didn’t bother to do it well. My copy also had warbles in the pitch sometimes, as if it were being played in an old cassette deck that needs its drive belts replaced.
Naturally, when the cast bursts into song, it’s pretty hard to catch the lyrics. Not that you’re missing anything. And for that matter, the songs are performed by a cast free of any actual singers. In the case of Bluto, they dubbed in a singer that doesn’t sound at all like the actor. I don’t know why; they were perfectly content to just make do with bad singing in all the other cases. And did I mention that the songs are retarded?
Next worst after the audio is probably the cornball action and fight sequences. Basically, none of the fake punches look even remotely like someone was actually hit. (Look for Dennis Franz as a random tough that Popeye gets to beat on.)
Perversely, I think Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl is totally cute, despite the part being so badly written that she sounds like she needs inpatient psychiatric care.
For all its awfulness, you sure can’t fault this movie for sticking to the well-worn safe paths of formula filmmaking. It’s rayther unique. It took a true leap of faith to try such an approach. And that makes this not just an ordinary dull movie, but a piece of classic bulldada. If you consider yourself a Bad Movie Snob, this could be the way to show off your advanced tastes...
The reason I gave it 1.5 tents (out of 3) is not because that’s how many it earns, but because I honestly cannot decide between 0.5 and 2.5 tents.