DVD Review – Popeye Director, Robert Altman; Producer, Robert Evans; Screenplay, Jules Feiffer, based on the comic strip by EC Segar; Director of Photography, Giuseppe Rotunno; Art Director, Wolf Kroeger; Editors, John W. Holmes and David A. Simmons; Music & Lyrics, Harry Nilsson. Cast: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, Bill Irwin, Linda Hunt, Dennis Franz. A Paramount Pictures Corporation / Walt Disney Production. A Paramount Pictures Release. Metrocolor. Technovision. 113 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG. Released December 12, 1980. DVD: Released by Paramount Home Video. Street Date June 24, 2003. $19.99 2.35:1 / 16:9 anamorphic Dolby 5.1 and Dolby Surround. Special Features: None. Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV Robert Altman's film of Popeye was considered a disaster of epic proportions when in was new, but 23 years of generally mediocre comic book/strip adaptations have diminished its once-legendary status. Today, Popeye is simply dismissed, a relic of Hollywood's first generation of High Concept filmmaking. (And, for all its criticism, the picture didn't do too badly at the box office, and has made more money than any Altman film to date.) The film is neither an unjustly maligned gem nor is it a fascinating train wreck of a movie. There are more than a few wonderfully executed characters and concepts, but the film quickly wears out its welcome and basically just sits there. It was a project whose fate was practically sealed from the get-go. Call it the “Lone Ranger” syndrome. Rossini's Guglielmo Tell may be one swell opera, but its overture is far better known to American audiences as the theme for “The Lone Ranger.” Similarly, Popeye purists may prefer the delightful, original newspaper strips of EC Segar, but by 1980 most people thought of the sailor-man as a semi-retired animated cartoon character reduced to pitching fried chicken. Max and Dave Fleischer produced Popeye's best cartoons back in the 1930s; indeed, they were among the finest animated shorts ever. But, magical as they were, these cartoons bore only a passing resemblance to the world of Segar's “Thimble Theater.” (King Features, take note: a DVD boxed set of these classic shorts is long overdue.) For the 1980 Popeye, the filmmakers largely abandoned the look of the Fleischer cartoons, opting instead for a return to the flavor of their original source, though the Fleischer influence is nonetheless felt throughout. In the wake of Superman (1978), the film of Popeye was given a sizeable budget, with Segar's port town of Sweethaven built full-scale on location in Malta. The elaborate production design was matched with equally detailed costumes and makeup (including Popeye's gigantic forearms), and Harry Nilsson was hired to write a dozen or so musical numbers. The resulting story finds Popeye (Robin Williams, in his film debut) arriving in Sweethaven in search of his long-lost father. There he meets such familiar characters as Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall), her fiancé Bluto (Paul L. Smith), and hamburger-obsessed Wimpy (Paul Dooley). Olive soon breaks her engagement with an enraged Bluto while Popeye finds a baby, names it Swee'pea, and makes the child his “adoptid infink.” The actors gives it their all, and are generally well-cast. Even critics who hated the picture agreed Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl, though Williams, Dooley, Donald Moffat (LBJ in The Right Stuff, here playing a tax collector) and Ray Walston (as Popeye's “pap,” Poopdeck Pappy) are equally fine. There are several effective sight gags, and Jules Feiffer's script has Williams muttering amusingly under his breath much as Jack Mercer did in the Fleischer cartoons. Most of Nilsson's songs are terrible, but Duvall's (intentionally) off-pitch “He Needs Me” is endearing and the opening “Sweethaven” number is almost good. But after 20 minutes you've pretty much seen all there is to see. Segar's genius was in the quirkiness of his offbeat humor, not the depth of his characters. An oft-repeated criticism holds true here: what works in a six-minute cartoon cannot be sustained in a 114-minute feature. Perhaps the film might have worked better if Feiffer's script had concentrated more on the genuinely charming relationship between Popeye and Olive, and how Swee'pea brings them together. (The poignancy of these scenes is particularly surprising considering Robert Altman is perhaps the least sentimental director in American cinema.) Instead, the film seems more interested in showing off its production values, and tries too hard to be a living cartoon, a visually interesting but ultimately pointless and doomed ambition. How is the Transfer? Previously available (even on laserdisc) only in pan-and-scan format, Popeye has finally been released to DVD by Paramount Home Video in its original 2.35:1 Technovision aspect ratio, with 16:9 enhancement. Original prints were singularly grainy, but the DVD is sharp with good color and deep blacks, from the blue-green waters off the coast of the Malta location, to Olive Oyl's signature red-black dress. Produced at a time when stereo sound was still making a comeback in movie houses, Popeye features a surprisingly robust, modern soundtrack. The 5.1 and Dolby Surround mixes for the DVD were, presumably, derived from those originally created for the 70mm blow-up version. Special Features It's a shame that Paramount opted to include no special features for this DVD. Since the days of laserdisc, Altman's work has frequently received special edition treatment, and there's little doubt a documentary or audio commentary about this film's troubled production would be fascinating. We can only hope Fox will spring for a Special Edition of Quintet. Parting Thoughts It's hard to imagine to whom Popeye was targeted. General audiences were unfamiliar with the Segar strips and left bemused by the film's quirky, Depression-era sensibility, while the incongruous musical numbers (among other things) put off fans of strip. Those expecting something like the classic Fleischer shorts were equally disappointed to find a film with familiar characters populating in an alien environment. Though not quite a disaster, Popeye isn't very amusing, despite many well-executed ideas.