Popeye (film)

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Popeye standing back to back with Olive, a baby crawls at his feet.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Altman
Produced byRobert Evans
Screenplay byJules Feiffer
Based onPopeye
by E. C. Segar
StarringRobin Williams
Shelley Duvall
Music byHarry Nilsson
CinematographyGiuseppe Rotunno
Edited byTony Lombardo (supervising)
John W. Holmes
David A. Simmons
Distributed byParamount Pictures
(North America)
Buena Vista International Distribution
Release date
  • December 6, 1980 (1980-12-06)
Running time
114 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$20 million
Box office$60 million[1]

Popeye is a 1980 American musical comedy film directed by Robert Altman and based on E. C. Segar's character of the same name from the Thimble Theatre comic strip. Produced by Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Productions, film stars Robin Williams[2] as Popeye the Sailor Man and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Paramount handled North American distribution, while Buena Vista International handled international distribution.

The film premiered on December 6, 1980 in Los Angeles, California, to mixed reviews and disappointing box office results. Harry Nilsson's soundtrack received mostly positive reviews.


Popeye, a sailor, arrives at the small coastal town of Sweethaven while searching for his disappeared father. He is immediately feared by the townsfolk simply because he is a stranger and is accosted by a greedy taxman. He rents a room at the Oyl family's boarding house where the Oyls' daughter, Olive, is preparing for her engagement party. Her hand is promised to Captain Bluto, a powerful, perpetually angry bully who runs the town in the name of the mysterious Commodore. In the morning, Popeye visits the local diner for breakfast and demonstrates his strength as he brawls with a gang of provocative ruffians who give him and the other customers a hard time.

On the night of the engagement party, Bluto and the townsfolk arrive at the Oyls' home. Olive sneaks out of the house, after discovering that the only attribute she can report for her bullying fiancé is size. She encounters Popeye, who failed to fit in with the townsfolk at the party. The two eventually come across an abandoned baby in a basket. Popeye adopts the child, naming him Swee'Pea, and the two return to the Oyls' home. Bluto has grown increasingly furious with Olive's absence. He realizes that she means to break off the engagement. He eventually flies into a rage and destroys the house. When he sees Popeye and Olive with Swee'Pea, Bluto beats Popeye into submission and declares heavy taxation for the Oyls.

The taxman repossesses the remains of the Oyls' home and their possessions. The Oyls' son, Castor, decides to compete against the local heavyweight boxer, Oxblood Oxheart, in the hopes of winning a hefty prize for his family. Castor is overpowered and knocked out of the ring by Oxheart. Popeye takes the ring in Castor's place and defeats Oxheart, finally earning the townsfolk's respect. Back at home, Popeye and Olive sing Swee'Pea to sleep.

The next day, Olive tells Popeye that during his match with Oxheart, she discovered that Swee'Pea can predict the future by whistling when he hears the correct answer to a question. Wimpy, the local con artist and petty gambler, overhears and asks to take Swee'Pea out for a walk, though he actually takes him to the "horse races" (actually a mechanical carnival horse game) and wins two games. Popeye is outraged, and vents his frustrations to the racing parlor's customers. Fearing further exploitation of his child, Popeye moves out of the Oyls' home and onto the docks; when the taxman harasses him, Popeye pushes him into the water, prompting the townsfolk to celebrate. In the chaos, Wimpy, who has been intimidated by Bluto, kidnaps Swee'Pea for him. That night, Olive remarks to herself about her budding relationship with Popeye, while Popeye writes a message in a bottle for Swee'Pea.

Wimpy sees Bluto taking Swee'Pea into the Commodore's ship; he and Olive inform Popeye. Inside, Bluto presents the boy to the Commodore, promising that he is worth a fortune. When the Commodore reminds Bluto that his buried treasure is all the fortune he needs, Bluto ties him up and takes Swee'Pea himself. Popeye enters the ship and meets the Commodore, realizing that he is his father, Poopdeck Pappy. Pappy initially denies that Popeye is his son; to prove it, Pappy tries to feed Popeye canned spinach, which he says is his family's source of great strength. Popeye hates spinach and refuses to eat it. Bluto kidnaps Olive as well and sets sail to find Pappy's treasure. Popeye, Pappy, Wimpy and the Oyl family board Pappy's ship to give pursuit. Bluto sails to Scab Island, a desolate island in the middle of the ocean, while Pappy argues with his son and rants about children.

Popeye catches Bluto and fights him, but despite his determination, Popeye is overpowered. During the duel, Pappy recovers his treasure and opens the chest to reveal a collection of personal sentimental items from Popeye's infancy, including a few cans of spinach. A gigantic octopus awakens and attacks Olive from underwater (after Pappy saves Swee'Pea from a similar fate). With Popeye in a choke hold, Pappy throws him a can of spinach; Bluto, recognizing Popeye's dislike for spinach, force-feeds him the can before throwing him into the water. The spinach revitalizes Popeye and boosts his strength; he knocks Bluto down in one punch, then swiftly sends the giant octopus flying hundreds of feet into the air. Bluto swims away as Popeye celebrates his victory and his new-found appreciation of spinach.



According to James Robert Parish, in his book Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops, the idea for the Popeye musical had its basis in the bidding war for the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Annie between the two major studios vying for the rights, Columbia and Paramount. When Robert Evans found out that Paramount had lost the bidding for Annie, he held an executive meeting in which he asked about comic strip characters that they had the rights to which could also be used in order to create a movie musical, and one attendee said "Popeye".

At that time, even though King Features Syndicate (now a unit of Hearst) retained the television rights to Popeye and related characters, with Hanna-Barbera then producing the series The All-New Popeye Hour under license from King Features, Paramount still held all theatrical rights to the Popeye character, due to the studio releasing cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios, respectively, that lasted from 1932 to 1957.

Evans commissioned Jules Feiffer to write a script. In 1977, he said he wanted Dustin Hoffman to play Popeye opposite Lily Tomlin as Olive Oyl, with John Schlesinger directing.[3] Gilda Radner, then a hot new star as an original cast member of Saturday Night Live, was also considered for the Olive Oyl role. However, Radner's manager Bernie Brillstein later wrote how he discouraged her from taking the part due his concerns about the quality of the script and worries about her working for months on an isolated set with Evans and Altman (both known for erratic behavior and unorthodox creative methods).[4]

In December 1979, Disney joined the film as part of a two-picture co-production deal with Paramount which also included Dragonslayer. Disney acquired the foreign rights through its Buena Vista unit; the deal was motivated by the drawing power that the studio's films had in Europe.

The film was shot in Malta. The Sweethaven set that was built for the film still exists, and it is now a popular tourist attraction known as Popeye Village. According to Parish, Robin Williams referred to this set as "Stalag Altman".


Popeye premiered at the Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on December 6, 1980, two days before what would have been E.C. Segar's 86th birthday.[5]:123

Box office[edit]

The film grossed $6 million on its opening weekend in the U.S., and made $32,000,000 after 32 days.[5]:123–124 The film earned $49,823,037[6] at the United States box office — more than double the film's budget — and a worldwide total of $60 million.[1]:88 Although the film's gross was decent, it was nowhere near the blockbuster that Paramount and Disney had expected, and was thus written off as a flop.[7]

Critical response[edit]

The film received overall mixed reviews: Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 59% rating based on reviews from 29 critics, with the critical consensus stating [that] "Altman's take on the iconic cartoon is messy and wildly uneven, but its robust humor and manic charm are hard to resist."[8] Metacritic gives it a score of 64 out of 100, based on reviews from 14 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[9]

Some reviews were highly favorable. Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars out of a possible 4, writing that Duvall was "born to play" Olive Oyl, and with Popeye Altman had proved "it is possible to take the broad strokes of a comic strip and turn them into sophisticated entertainment."[10] Gene Siskel also awarded 3.5 stars out of 4, writing that the first 30 minutes were "tedious and totally without a point of view," but once Swee'pea was introduced the film "then becomes quite entertaining and, in a few scenes, very special."[11] Richard Combs of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "In its own idiosyncratic fashion, it works."[12]

Other critics were unfavorable, such as Leonard Maltin, who described the picture as a bomb: "E.C. Segar's beloved sailorman boards a sinking ship in this astonishingly boring movie. A game cast does its best with an unfunny script, cluttered staging, and some alleged songs. Tune in a couple hours' worth of Max Fleischer cartoons instead; you'll be much better off."[13] Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "a thoroughly charming, immensely appealing mess of a movie, often high-spirited and witty, occasionally pretentious and flat, sometimes robustly funny and frequently unintelligible. It is, in short, a very mixed bag."[14] Variety wrote that all involved "fail to bring the characters to life at the sacrifice of a large initial chunk of the film. It's only when they allow the characters to fall back on their cartoon craziness that the picture works at all."[15] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "While there are things to like in this elaborately stylized, exasperating musical slapstick fantasy ... they emerge haphazardly and flit in and out of a precarious setting."[16] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times described the film as "rarely uninteresting but seldom entirely satisfying," and thought that the adult tone of the dialogue left it "uncertain what the film's target audience is intended to be."[17]


Soundtrack album by
Released1981 (reissued in 2000 and rereleased in a limited edition in 2016)
GenrePop, show tune
LabelBoardwalk (1980)
Walt Disney/Geffen (2000)
Varèse Sarabande/Universal (2016)
ProducerHarry Nilsson
Harry Nilsson chronology
Flash Harry

The soundtrack was composed by Harry Nilsson, who took a break from producing his album Flash Harry to write the score for the film. He wrote all the original songs and co-produced the music with producer Bruce Robb at Cherokee Studios. The soundtrack in the film was unusual in that the actors sang some of the songs "live". For that reason, the studio album did not quite match the tracks heard in the film. Van Dyke Parks is credited as music arranger.

In the U.S. trailer for the film, which contained the song "I Yam What I Yam", the version heard of the song was from the soundtrack album, not the film.

"I'm Popeye the Sailor Man" was composed by Sammy Lerner for the original Max Fleischer cartoon.

1."I Yam What I Yam"2:16
2."He Needs Me"3:33
3."Swee' Pea's Lullaby"2:06
4."Din' We"3:06
5."Sweethaven—An Anthem"2:56
6."Blow Me Down"4:07
8."It's Not Easy Being Me"2:20
9."He's Large"4:19
10."I'm Mean"2:33
12."I'm Popeye the Sailor Man"1:19

The song "Everything Is Food" was not included on the album, while the song "Din' We" (which was cut from the film) was included. In 2016, a vinyl-only limited-edition version of the album was released with two bonus tracks by Varèse Sarabande for Record Store Day Black Friday.


  1. ^ a b O'Brien, Daniel (1995). Robert Altman: Hollywood Survivor. New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-0791-9.
  2. ^ Spitznagel, Eric (August 12, 2014). "Popeye Is the Best Movie Robin Williams Ever Made". Vanity Fair. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
  3. ^ At the Movies: Producer Sets Hoffman's Sail For 'Popeye' Flatley, Guy. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] October 14, 1977: 58.
  4. ^ Bernie Brillstein, Where Did I Go Right? You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead (1999, Little, Brown and Company)
  5. ^ a b Plecki, Gerard (1985). Robert Altman. Boston: Twayne Publishers (G.K. Hall & Company/ITT). ISBN 0-8057-9303-8.
  6. ^ "Box office statistics for Popeye (1980)". The Numbers. Retrieved 2010-05-11.
  7. ^ Prince, Stephen (2000) A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989 (p. 222). University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, California. ISBN 0-520-23266-6
  8. ^ https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1016534_popeye
  9. ^ http://www.metacritic.com/movie/popeye/critic-reviews
  10. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Popeye". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  11. ^ Siskel, Gene (December 12, 1980). "First-rate fairy tale for adults". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 3.
  12. ^ Combs, Richard (March 1981). "Popeye". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 48 (566): 55.
  13. ^ Martin, Leonard (2015). Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. Signet Books. p. 1113. ISBN 978-0-451-46849-9.
  14. ^ Canby, Vincent (December 12, 1980). "Screen: A Singing, Dancing, Feifferish Kind of 'Popeye'". The New York Times: C5.
  15. ^ "Popeye". Variety: 30. December 10, 1980.
  16. ^ Arnold, Gary (December 13, 1980). "Alas, Poor 'Popeye'". The Washington Post: D2.
  17. ^ Champlin, Charles (December 12, 1980). "A Miscalculated Voyage With 'Popeye'". Los Angeles Times. Part VI, p. 1, 10.

Further reading[edit]

  • Parish, James Robert (2006). Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-69159-4.

External links[edit]