With the obvious exception of Mickey Mouse, it's hard to think of a cartoon character more famous and long-lasting than Popeye. Ever since he made his first appearance in comic book form in 1929, he's been the world's favorite sailor. Many of us grew up watching Popeye's adventures on his animated television show. Even if you weren't a fan, you're bound to know a few facts about him. For instance, you'll know that he develops super-strength after eating spinach - a trait that helped many parents persuade children to eat their greens. You'll also know that his arch enemy is called Bluto, and the love of his life is Olive Oyl. There's no doubt about it - Popeye is a pop culture icon.
Taking into account all of the above, it might surprise you to hear that only one Popeye movie has ever been made - and it wasn’t a success. Back in 1980, Disney decided to co-produce a Popeye film and put a young Robin Williams in the lead role. It was strange casting even for the time, and the decision to make a live-action film rather than an animation was equally strange. The movie did a little better than breaking even at the box office, meaning it wasn’t a total disaster, but it was poorly received by critics, and so it was never followed up on.
Having one bad film isn't usually a barrier to more films being made for successful entertainment properties. Therefore, it would be astonishing to think that there hasn't been another attempt made to bring Popeye back to the big screen in all the years since then - and it would also be a mistake. There might not have been a new Popeye film yet, but it's not for want of trying. Sony Pictures acquired the rights to make a film in 2010 and put it in the hands of Jay Scherick and David Ronn, who'd recently had success with a movie based on the Smurfs. By 2012, Genndy Tartakovsky had been brought aboard to direct it. After that, it all went quiet for a long time. T. J. Fixman replaced Scherick and Ronn in 2016 as Sony attempted to go back to the drawing board, but Tartakovsky confirmed he was no longer working on the film shortly afterward, and the project quietly disappeared from Sony’s schedules. As far as anybody was aware, it was dead and buried.
The first signs we got that something new might be happening with the intellectual property of Popeye came just a few months ago when it was confirmed that a company called Spieldev was making a new Popeye-themed game for online slots websites, due for release in late December 2020. The online slots game couldn't have been made without a license bring granted, and so somebody somewhere clearly still has an interest in making money out of Popeye's likeness. It's rare for a comic hero to appear at an online slots website - in fact, the only other ones we can think of are Inspector Gadget and Rick and Morty. Whether or not the release of the new online casino UK prompted a renewal of interest in making the movie isn't known, but the project is suddenly back on the cards.
Not only has someone retrieved the project from development Hell, but they’ve also seemingly persuaded the original director to return to the project. Having opted out almost five years ago, Genndy Tartakovsky is now back on board to finish what he started. That ‘someone’ isn’t Sony, though. When Sony washed their hands of it in 2016, they surrendered their rights to make the film. Those rights reverted to King Features - the owners of the Popeye copyright - and they’re the company that’s brought the idea back to life and brought Tartakovsky back to the table. We know that the forthcoming film will be an animation - which should mean there will be no repeat of the dreadful Robin Williams movie - but we’re not clear on whether Tartakovsky will be allowed to pick up from where he left off. Some ‘proof of concept’ animation footage from the Sony production was released to the internet in 2014, suggesting work had been done on the film, but that footage presumably still belongs to Sony. It might be the case that Tartatovsky and his chosen writers have to start again from scratch.
If the existing work has to be scrapped, it would be a shame. The three-dimensional style of animation was great, and hasn't begun to look dated in the six years that have passed. The short scene that's publicly available is also very entertaining, with Popeye and Olive doing battle with Bluto on a sailing ship. To avoid copyright issues with Sony, the director would presumably have to tweak the animation style slightly - so we can only hope that he's able to come up with something as attractive as he did the last time he was asked to work on the idea. We're sure he's capable. If he didn't feel like he had the right ideas, we imagine he wouldn't have agreed to return to the job.
Now we know that the project is finally going ahead after a decade of delays, the only question left to answer is when we might get to see the finished product. We suspect that might take a while. At the time of writing, we haven't heard anything about who might be writing the script, who King Features might be working with as production partners, and how much work - if any at all - has been done so far. Making a fully animated movie isn't a fast process, and so we'd estimate that at least two years of work will be required even if a script has been written and is ready to go right now. Working on the assumption that it isn't, we'd be surprised to see the legendary spinach-munching tough guy on our movie theater screens before 2023. That might seem like a long time to wait, but when we're talking about a character who's been waiting for a credible movie appearance for over ninety years, we suppose another three aren't going to hurt anyone. Hopefully, there won't be any bumps in the road this time.