POPEYE (1980)

(HBO MAX/VOD) This is perhaps one of the strangest films in Altman’s already eclectic oeuvre: a live-action children’s musical adaptation of the comic strip adventures of Popeye, penned solely for the screen, directed by Robert Altman, with Robin Williams as Popeye. Yes, this happened, all because Paramount lost the bidding war for the film rights to ANNIE.

Turns out, this mixture of incongruent ingredients actually worked. The shantytown feels like Altman’s returned to MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, and his trademark overlapping dialogue finds a home in over-crowded comedic numbers. The songs, while extraordinarily basic, are sweetly catchy and are always in-tune with the characters, while also managing to mine the past of the comics and animated reels.

Altman also managed to luck out with a rather subdued Williams, who perfectly encapsulates Popeye’s mutters and utterances, while also being able to turn on the physical bravado when necessary. Also, there’s Shelley Duvall, in the role she was born to play: Olive Oyl. Altman gives her more to work with than you’d expect of Oyl and Duvall runs with it, while still echoing the familiar in-peril shrieks but buttoning it with a defiant barb.

If there’s one fault of the film, it’s the camerawork, which approaches physical comedy with Altman’s standard approach to his improv-centric filming style: a hodge podge of clumsy master shots. Sadly, that doesn’t play well with the slapstick scenes here, so several of the big physical numbers feel slipshod.

Otherwise, this feels like a template for future musicals adapted from ill-fitting sources. While it wasn’t nearly as successful as ANNIE, it’s a far more interesting work.