It premiered on December 6, 1980 in Los Angeles, California, to mixed reviews and disappointing box office. The film has since been released on DVD as well as digital download. Harry Nilsson's soundtrack received mostly positive reviews.
Popeye (Robin Williams), a sailor, arrives at the small coastal town of Sweethaven ("Sweethaven - An Anthem") while searching for his long-lost father. He is immediately feared by the townsfolk simply because he is a stranger ("Blow Me Down"), and is accosted by a greedy taxman (Donald Moffat). He rents a room at the Oyl family's boarding house, whose daughter, Olive (Shelley Duvall), is preparing for her engagement party. Her hand is promised to Captain Bluto (Paul L. Smith), a powerful, perpetually angry bully who runs the town in the name of the mysterious Commodore. In the morning, Popeye visits the local diner for breakfast ("Everything Is Food") and demonstrates his strength as he brawls with a gang of provocative ruffians.
On the night of the engagement party, Bluto and the townsfolk arrive at the Oyls' home. Olive, however, sneaks out of the house, after discovering that the only attribute she can report for her bullying fiance is size ("He's Large"). 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 (Wesley Ivan Hurt). Popeye adopts the child, naming him Swee'Pea, and the two return to the Oyls' home. Bluto, however, has grown increasingly furious with Olive's absence, eventually flying into a rage and destroying the house ("I'm Mean"). When he sees Popeye and Olive with Swee'Pea, Bluto beats Popeye into submission and declares heavy taxation for the Oyls.
The taxman repossesses the remains of the Oyls' home and all their possessions. The Oyls' son, Castor, decides to compete against the local heavyweight boxer, Oxblood Oxheart (Peter Bray) in the hopes of winning a hefty prize for his family. However, Castor is no match for Oxheart and is savagely beaten and knocked out of the ring. Popeye takes the ring in Castor's place and defeats Oxheart, putting on a show for the townsfolk and finally earning their respect. Back at home, Popeye and Olive sing Swee'Pea to sleep ("Swee' Pea's Lullaby").
The next day, Olive tells Popeye that during his match with Oxheart, she discovered that Swee'Pea can predict the future by whistling when he hears the correct answer to a question. Wimpy (Paul Dooley) overhears and asks to take Swee'Pea out for a walk, though he actually takes him to the "horse races" (actually a form of carnival game as depicted in the movie) and wins two games. Popeye, however, is outraged, and vents his frustrations to the racing parlor's customers ("I Yam What I Yam"). Fearing further exploitation of his child, Popeye moves out of the Oyls' home and onto the docks; when the taxman harasses him, Popeye pushes him into the water, prompting a celebration by the townspeople. In the chaos, Wimpy, who has been intimidated by Bluto, kidnaps Swee'Pea for him. That night, Olive remarks to herself about her budding relationship with Popeye ("He Needs Me"), while Popeye writes a message in a bottle for Swee'Pea ("Sailin'").
Wimpy sees Bluto taking Swee'Pea into the Commodore's ship; he and Olive inform Popeye. Inside, Bluto presents the boy to the curmudgeonly Commodore, promising that he is worth a fortune; however, the Commodore refuses to listen, reminding Bluto that his buried treasure is all the fortune he needs. His patience with the Commodore exhausted, Bluto ties him up and takes Swee'Pea himself ("It's Not Easy Being Me"). Popeye storms the ship and meets the Commodore, realizing that he is his father, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). However, Pappy initially denies that Popeye is his son; to prove it, Pappy tries to feed Popeye spinach, which he claims is his family's source of great strength. However, Popeye hates spinach and refuses to eat it. Bluto kidnaps Olive as well and sets sail to find Pappy's treasure. Popeye, Pappy, and the Oyl family board Pappy's ship to give pursuit. Bluto sails to Scab Island, a desolate island in the middle of the ocean, while Pappy argues with his son and rants about children ("Kids").
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 giant octopus awakens and attacks Swee'Pea and Olive from underwater. 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; he knocks Bluto down in one punch, then swiftly deals with the giant octopus, sending it flying hundreds of feet into the air. Bluto's clothing turns yellow and he swims away as Popeye celebrates his victory ("Popeye The Sailor Man").
- Robin Williams as Popeye the Sailor
- Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl
- Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy
- Paul Dooley as J. Wellington Wimpy
- Paul L. Smith as Bluto
- Richard Libertini as George W. Geezil
- Donald Moffat as The Taxman
- MacIntyre Dixon as Cole Oyl
- Roberta Maxwell as Nana Oyl
- Donovan Scott as Castor Oyl
- Allan F. Nicholls as Rough House
- Wesley Ivan Hurt as Swee'Pea
- Bill Irwin as Ham Gravy
- Robert Fortier as Bill Barnacle
- David McCharen as Harry Hotcash
- Sharon Kinney as Cherry
- Peter Bray as Oxblood Oxheart
- Linda Hunt as Mrs. Oxheart
- Geoff Hoyle as Scoop
- Wayne Robson as Chizzelflint
- Larry Pisoni as Chico
- Carlo Pellegrini as Swifty
- Klaus Voormann as Von Schnitzel (the conductor)
- Dennis Franz as Spike (a bully)
- Alan Autry (credited as Carlos Brown) as Slug (a bully)
- Jack Mercer as Popeye the Sailor (Animated prologue only)
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 that they had the rights to, that could also be used in order to create a movie musical, and one attendee said "Popeye".
At that time, although King Features Syndicate retained the television rights to Popeye and related characters, (Hanna-Barbera was producing the series The All-New Popeye Hour at the time under license from King Features), Paramount still held all theatrical rights to the Popeye character, due to the studio releasing cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios, respectively, that lasted from 1932-57.
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 film set that was built still exists, and it is now a tourist attraction known as Popeye Village. According to Parish, Robin Williams referred to this set as "Stalag Altman".
Popeye premiered at the Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on December 6, 1980 (just two days before what would have been E.C. Segar's 86th birthday).
The film grossed US$6,000,000 on its opening weekend in the U.S., and made US$32,000,000 after 32 days. The film earned $49,823,037 at the United States box office — more than double the film's budget — and a worldwide total of US$60,000,000. 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.
It received overall mixed reviews: some favorable, from critics such as Roger Ebert; others unfavorable, from critics such as Leonard Maltin, who described the picture as a bomb: "E.C. Segar's beloved sailorman boards a sinking ship with this astonishingly boring musical. A game cast does its best with an unfunny script, cluttered staging and some alleged songs. Tune in a few hours' worth of Max Fleischer cartoons instead; you'll be much better off." Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 57% "Rotten" rating 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."
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 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.
"I'm Popeye the Sailor Man" was composed by Sammy Lerner for the original Max Fleischer cartoon.
- "I Yam What I Yam" – (2:16)
- "He Needs Me" – (3:33)
- "Swee' Pea's Lullaby" – (2:06)
- "Din' We" – (3:06)
- "Sweethaven – An Anthem" – (2:56)
- "Blow Me Down" – (4:07)
- "Sailin'" – (2:48)
- "It's Not Easy Being Me" – (2:20)
- "He's Large" – (4:19)
- "I'm Mean" – (2:33)
- "Kids" – (4:23)
- "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.
- The song "Sweethaven – An Anthem" is the only song heard twice in the film.
- This is the first Disney film to be based on a non-Disney cartoon/TV show.
- This is the first Disney film to be made in partnership with Paramount Pictures, decades later, who also works in production with The Avengers and Iron Man 3.
- Parish, James Robert (2006). Fiasco – A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, page 359 pages.. ISBN 978-0-471-69159-4.
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