Taxman Cometh

Sweethaven isn’t a town of this world. It’s a bizarre place, that sings thanks to a higher power for keeping them safe and isolated. They fear anyone not native to their home – notably Popeye, who drifts from place to place looking for his father. Maybe Sweethaven-ites can’t handle Popeye’s arms.

In a strict sense, Robert Altman’s Popeye captures the comic/cartoon sensibilities in live action. There’s a defined surrealism, totally screwball, and remarkably accurate to the source material. Each character is instantly recognizable before anyone says their name. Pipe chomping Robin Williams too, muttering zaniness whenever he’s on screen.

Robert Altman’s Popeye captures the comic/cartoon sensibilities in live action

Even the story suits the oddball production, Popeye taking care of an orphaned baby, trying to fit in somewhere (anywhere), and dueling Bluto (Paul L. Smith). There’s easy-going fare about fathers and sons, being the best person, and saving Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall). Oh, and a corrupt government that suits a sort-of ‘20s or ‘30s era aesthetic. Popeye’s the one to finally resist an absurd, greedy underling of the local commodore. As the taxman plops into the water courtesy of Popeye’s fist, the town cheers. They realize the value in letting outsiders mingle.

For what Popeye does right, there’s another element draining those qualities. It’s equivalent to a movie staged in a bathtub, the spout turned on full, but the stopper out of place. That open pipe doesn’t let Popeye fill. Notably, the grating songs shifting Popeye into musical material. Disney paired with Paramount on this one, and that’s the likely result – everyone busting out a solo, and until the ending when the memorable Popeye theme plays, there’s not a winner in the group. Each number brings the energy to a halt.

Interpreting Popeye as this lost child looking for a way to settle counts for something though. For all of the barroom brawls and wacky boxing matches, the movie does carry a heart. Williams’ performance offers some genuine somber drama, using his rough childhood to ensure an orphan doesn’t end up like himself. Popeye looks fondly on a picture of his dad – or rather, a picture frame, filled with cardboard that says “Me paps.” In most movies, the hero saves the girl. Certainly, that happens in Popeye too as Olive Oyl spends the last chapter confined. More than rescue her though, Popeye fights to make sure his kin knows him and knows a mother. All that sailor gruffness can’t overtake a need to do right.

Video

Debuting on Blu-ray – finally – via Paramount, the mastering presents with some reservations. The scan doesn’t appear to involve the greatest resolution, struggling to define wide shots like those of Sweethaven. Detail in the expensive and lavish town set never appear in any great way, a bit muddy, lacking firm definition.

Things look a bit better in close. Not fantastic, but passable. Grain naturally hovers over the imagery, handled well by the compression, allowing marginal detail to thrive. In HD now, it’s easy to see the makeup adorning Popeye’s arms as artificial.

The darkest moments fall to crush. Otherwise, black levels nicely supplement the imagery. Same with contrast, soaking up Malta’s coastal sunlight. Sometimes vivid color (Oyl’s red dress) makes a splash against the smokey gray buildings. Water holds excellent greens and blues. Overall primaries saturate naturally, thankfully without digital touch-up.

Audio

Listen as Bluto stares down a fly. The stereos pan the buzzing insect between channels in a smooth, nicely extended moment. Surrounds play around a little too, like when Castor is kicked out of the boxing ring, making a clean front-to-back motion. Songs reverb when a crowd sings in unison, and a storm opens things by picking up thunder in each channel.

Range isn’t much, the TrueHD track adding a little weight to Bluto’s yell and a statue collapsing. Still, the upscale from the original feels natural and inoffensive.

Extras

Paramount probably sat on this for a bit given the first bonus, Return to Sweethaven, features new retrospective interviews with Williams before his death, this bonus reaching 13-minutes. Same goes for a look at the cast, also new to Blu, if produced a while ago. Stills comprise a look at the premiere, and a menu to skip right to the songs follows.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Popeye
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A bizarre live action adaptation of Popeye has heart and Robin Williams’ performance, but also nagging songs and tonal division.

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