Plagued by production troubles and reviled by critics upon its release, director Robert Altman's comic-book fantasy has nonetheless survived -- after years of video rentals and afternoon TV airings -- as a witty alternative to the average, oversimplified Disney pabulum. The casting certainly wasn't a problem: Robin Williams, replete with prosthetic forearms and a squinty left eye, makes for a perfectly mannered Popeye; and spaced-out beanpole Shelley Duvall may very well have been put on this earth to play the spaced-out beanpole Olive Oyl. Altman envisioned the cartoon's town of Sweethaven as a bustling, grungy burg not unlike the frontier town of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971); but where critics praised McCabe's overlapping dialogue and dark, detailed production design, they found the same techniques completely anachronistic to the ostensibly sunny cartoon world of Popeye and Bluto. Still, there's enough levity in the script to keep things afloat, and the Harry Nilsson/Van Dyke Parks songs are a delight, although their ironic humor may be lost on the very young. Like a Where's Waldo search book, Popeye is indeed cluttered and overstuffed -- but these very qualities keep tykes coming back for repeat viewings, to see or hear something they might have missed the first time.
by Michael Hastings review