There are many downright strange aspects to the one-and-only Popeye movie, and you may be forgiven for thinking the strangest of all is that it was directed by Robert Altman, or perhaps that there has been no subsequent attempt at a reboot.
But to me, the biggest mystery is how this could possibly be one of Robin Williams‘ most muted performances. In Altman fashion, the ostensible lead character is merely one part of a huge ensemble, as in Nashville or Gosford Park. I would not have expected Ray Walston or Shelley Duvall to overpower Williams under any circumstances, especially in a kids’ movie. Speaking of the latter, Duvall absolutely nails the part of Olive Oyl, and is the best thing here.
Popeye has an easy-going, laid-back slacker vibe, even during the slapstick action sequences. Fittingly for the famously mumbling, inarticulate sailor man, the story is largely visual, and non-reliant on dialog. You could turn down the volume and have essentially the same experience. Indeed, Popeye would probably make great viewing for toddlers (or adult stoners) that vibe on The Teletubbies, or whatever today’s equivalent is. Compare and contrast with the heavily scripted, highly verbal kids’ movies from the Pixar and Dreamworks assembly lines.
I wonder if Warren Beatty studied Altman’s Popeye, in preparation for his own idiosyncratic comic strip adaptation, Dick Tracy. And the giant, sprawling set (not to mention the presence of Williams) also brings to mind Steven Spielberg’s Hook.