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 comic strip of the same name from the Thimble Theatre comic strip. Produced by Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Productions, the 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.

Popeye premiered on December 6, 1980 in Los Angeles, California, to mostly tepid reviews. The film performed well at the box office, but fell short of studio projections; as a result, it has often been incorrectly reported as a financial flop. Harry Nilsson's soundtrack received mostly positive reviews.


Popeye, a strong sailor, arrives at the small coastal town of Sweethaven while searching for his missing father. He rents a room at the Oyl family's boarding house where the Oyls' daughter, Olive, is being planned to be engaged to Captain Bluto, a powerful, perpetually angry bully who runs the town in the name of the mysterious Commodore. However, on the night of the engagement party, Olive sneaks out 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 and Olive adopts the child, naming him Swee'Pea after the town Sweethaven, and the two return to the Oyls' home. Bluto finds out about this encounter, which results in him declaring heavy taxation for the Oyls' property and possessions out of rage. A greedy taxman follows Bluto's demand, but Popeye fixes the Oyls' financial situation by winning a hefty prize from defeating a boxer named Oxblood Oxheart, earning the townsfolks' respect at the same time.

The next day, Popeye discovers that Swee'Pea can predict the future by whistling when he hears the correct answer to a question. Wimpy, the local mooch, hungry and petty gambler, also notices this and asks Popeye and Olive to take Swee'Pea out for a walk. However, he actually takes him to the "horse races" (actually a mechanical carnival horse game) and wins two games. Wimpy then kidnaps the child under the guidance of Bluto. Bluto takes Swee'Pea, but Wimpy also informs Popeye about the kidnapping. He goes to the Commodore's ship, where Popeye finds out the Commodore is Popeye's father, Poopdeck Pappy. Meanwhile, however, Bluto kidnaps Olive and sets sail to find buried treasure promised by Pappy. Popeye, Pappy, Wimpy and the Oyl family board Pappy's ship to chase Bluto into Scab Island, a desolate island in the middle of the ocean.

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, defeating Bluto and the giant octopus. 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 which the studio held 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 had long held the theatrical rights to the Popeye character, due to the studio releasing Popeye cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios, respectively, 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] Hoffman later dropped out due to creative differences with Feiffer. 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 elaborate Sweethaven set was constructed beyond what was needed for filming, adding to the cost and complexity of the production, along with a recording studio, editing facilities, and other buildings related to the production, including living quarters. The set 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".

Parish notes a variety of other production problems. Feiffer's script went through rewrites during the production, and he expressed concern too much screen time was being devoted to minor characters. He also disliked Nilsson's songs, feeling they weren't right for the film. The original inflatable arms designed for the muscle-bound Popeye did not look satisfactory, so new ones were commissioned and made in Italy, leaving Altman to film scenes not showing them until the new ones arrived. Altman also had the cast singing their musical numbers live -- contrary to standard convention for a movie musical where songs are recorded first in a studio and lip-synched -- causing sound quality problems. Williams also had to re-record his dialogue after running into trouble with his character's mumbling style, a by-product of talking with a pipe in his mouth, and his affinity for ad-libs also led to clashes with the director. The partnership with Disney put pressure on the production to keep the film family-friendly, including cutting a fleeting profanity uttered by Williams in one scene. The final battle involving the octopus led to more headaches when the mechanical beast failed to work properly. After the production cost rose beyond $20 million, Paramount ordered Altman to wrap filming and return to California with what he had.


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 60% rating based on reviews from 30 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][14] 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."[15] 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."[16][17] 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."[18] 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."[19]


Original release[edit]

Soundtrack album by
Released1981 (reissued in 2000, 2016, 2017)
GenrePop, show tune
LabelBoardwalk (1981)
Walt Disney/Geffen (2000, 2017)
Varèse Sarabande/Universal (2016, 2017)
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.

2017 deluxe edition[edit]

In 2017, Varese Sarabande released a deluxe edition that places the songs into the original order of the film, reinstates "Everything Is Food" and includes a second disc of demo versions of the songs sung by Nilsson and the cast.[20][21]

Disc 1
2."Blow Me Down"4:09
3."Everything Is Food"3:08
4."Rough House Fight":43
5."He's Large"4:20
6."I'm Mean"2:35
8."March Through Town":48
9."I Yam What I Yam"2:16
10."The Grand Finale"1:34
11."He Needs Me"3:33
12."Swee'Pea's Lullaby"2:04
13."Din' We"3:05
14."It's Not Easy Being Me"2:18
16."Skeleton Cave"2:04
17."Now Listen Kid / To the Rescue / Mr. Eye Is Trapped / Back into Action"5:04
18."Saved / Still at It / The Treasure / What? More Fighting / Pap’s Boy / Olive & the Octopus / What’s Up Pop / Popeye Triumphant"3:09
19."I'm Popeye the Sailor Man"1:22
20."End Title Medley"3:34
Disc 2
2."I'm Mean"3:21
3."Swee'Pea's Lullaby"2:50
4."Blow Me Down"3:02
5."Everything Is Food"3:43
6."He Needs Me"3:09
7."Everybody's Got to Eat"3:24
8."Sail with Me"2:53
9."I Yam What I Yam"3:08
10."It's Not Easy Being Me"2:24
12."I'm Popeye the Sailor Man"2:58
13."I'm Mean"2:59
14."He Needs Me"9:29
15."Everybody's Got to Eat"2:05
16."Din' We"3:02
18."I'd Rather Be Me"6:30


  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 May 11, 2010.
  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. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20181219171531/https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1989-11-16-8903100044-story.html Quote: Even so, Maltin considers the film a ''bomb,'' calling it ''astonishly boring'' in his annual guide.
  15. ^ Canby, Vincent (December 12, 1980). "Screen: A Singing, Dancing, Feifferish Kind of 'Popeye'". The New York Times: C5.
  16. ^ "Popeye". Variety: 30. December 10, 1980.
  17. ^ https://variety.com/1979/film/reviews/popeye-2-1200424682/
  18. ^ Arnold, Gary (December 13, 1980). "Alas, Poor 'Popeye'". The Washington Post: D2.
  19. ^ Champlin, Charles (December 12, 1980). "A Miscalculated Voyage With 'Popeye'". Los Angeles Times. Part VI, p. 1, 10.
  20. ^ http://undertheradarmag.com/reviews/harry_nilsson_popeye_deluxe_edition_music_from_the_motion_picture_varese_sa
  21. ^ https://www.varesesarabande.com/products/popeye-deluxe-edition

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]