Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We honor the life and career of Robin Williams by looking back on some of the late actor’s finest performances.
As a comedian, Robin Williams usually came across as something of a live-action cartoon, a whirlwind of energy that emerged into the real world through a crack in the boob tube, like the monsters of Joe Dante’s Twilight Zone: The Movie segment. So it makes a lot of sense that the Mork & Mindy star transitioned from the small screen to the large one by playing Popeye, a character who was born in the panels of a comic strip but who became perhaps better known in animated form. What’s fascinating, however, about the late actor’s performance in this agreeably bonkers adaptation is how it seems to toe the line between caricature and transformation: Williams successfully captures the jutting-jaw saltiness and mumbly speech patterns of the famous sailor man, while also somehow managing to supply the character with a little human depth. He’s half-man, half-cartoon—quite the tightrope act of a performance.
A similar dichotomy defines all of Popeye, a broad musical-comedy fantasia steeped in both the physical, emotional logic of the original comic strip and the earthier qualities of director Robert Altman’s 1970s output. The film was something of a flop upon first release, and it’s easy to see why: Altman has essentially given his vibrant McCabe & Mrs. Miller a Saturday-morning makeover, flooding a dingy seaside community with a bunch of outrageous slapstick creations. It’s one of the most audacious Hollywood family films on record, simultaneously loyal to its source material—the violence is unreal, the love triangle is childlike in its purity—and completely recognizable as the work of its idiosyncratic director. (Altman even pokes fun at his famous overlapping dialogue, having Popeye frequently pause while delivering his expositional backstory to shoot a stink eye at the blathering saloon patrons interrupting him.)
Auteurists have successfully salvaged the reputation of this blissfully weird film maudit, whose amazingly intricate production design and wealth of interesting background players betray the enthusiasm of its maker. (How strange to think that the film was ever dismissed as a sellout move by Altman, who makes no real effort here to disguise his interests and personality.) One has to wonder, though, if actual kids—the kind not weaned on premature screenings of Nashville—can still get a kick out of the thing? I suspect they can, mainly because of Williams and his joyous lack of self-consciousness. Also, Popeye fights a giant octopus. The adolescent appeal of that scenario is timeless, even if the special effects most certainly are not.
Availability: Popeye is available on DVD, which can be obtained from your local video store, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix.