Movie critics generally drubbed "Popeye" when it was released in 1980. The eccentric musical-comedy version of the equally eccentric comic strip about a one-eyed sailor and his beanpole girlfriend was considered by many too faithful to its roots in recreating the visual style of the original Segar comic strip.

Pauline Kael, critic for New Yorker magazine, called the film "cluttered, squawky and eerily unfunny."Leonard Maltin goes even further in his "TV Movies and Video Guide," giving it his lowest rating and complaining about Altman's staging, Jules Feiffer's "unfunny" script and Harry Nilsson's "alleged songs."

Given the film's reputation, it is a surprise to see in the Sundance Film Festival program guide that among five movies chosen for the retrospective honoring director Robert Altman "Popeye" is there. It's even more surprising when you consider that "M*A*S*H" is not.

" `Popeye' is a film that deserves rediscovery," according to Geoff Gilmore, festival program director. "And `M*A*S*H' has all the accolades it's ever going to get.

"We could only show a very select number, so instead of just showing the greatest, popular hits of Altman, we decided to choose films that deserve a second look."

To be fair, it should be noted that there have always been "Popeye" fans; the film was far from a financial flop. Furthermore, a few national reviews did go against the critical mainstream to give it a nod - including Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times and TV's "Siskel & Ebert." On the four-star rating scale, he gave it 3 1/2.

Someone else who feels "Popeye" got a bad rap is Altman himself.

"Well, it didn't live up to the expectations of the money market of `Superman' and so forth," Altman said in a telephone interview. "I'm glad they're showing it because I love that picture.

"It was a real cartoon picture, and I just liked what we did with that. It was not an unsuccessful film, nobody lost any money on that picture. But it didn't live up to expectations. But I'm happy with it, especially now, since `Dick Tracy' and `Batman.' "

Altman said his intention was to recreate the artistic style and philosophical approach of the original Segar comic strip. Robin Williams, a TV star on "Mork and Mindy" at the time, had already been cast in what would be his first starring role in a movie.

"A lot of directors had turned it down," Altman said. "My agent said, `Read this and tell me what's wrong with it.' And I said, `I love it and I'd do it in a second, especially with Robin Williams. I don't think I would have gone out and tried to cast somebody else, he seemed so perfect.

"And Shelley Duvall, well what can you say? She was Olive Oyl!"

Altman also has strong feelings about his other older films showing in the festival.

- `Nashville":

"Well, what can you say. That's always the one people seem to like the most. I think it started a new style, the thing with multiple stories going on. I'm trying to do a new film, `L.A. Shortcuts," which has the `Nashville' kind of structure."

- "Three Women":

"I like that film, though it was not a wildly successful film. It was a unique piece."

- "McCabe and Mrs. Miller":

"That was a real failure when it first came out. It made no money, Warren Beatty deserted it and wouldn't support it. He said nobody could understand it. But now it's a closet classic. It was re-released in London last March and did more business than `Pretty Woman' over there. I like (`McCabe and Mrs. Miller') too. People tend to associate that with me."

- "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean":

"That's a good film to show because it was an independent situation. It was a play I directed on Broadway and it was closing and I made a deal to shoot it moments after the play closed. We shot it in 16mm for very little money. And, of course, I put Cher in the play so she was also in the movie. It turned that thing into a circus at the time but she was wonderful."

Altman said he doesn't mind that "M*A*S*H" isn't being shown since it is probably his most famous work, but he isn't crazy about the suggestion that the immensely popular TV series that followed has somewhat overshadowed his film.

"I really didn't like (the TV series) at all. I thought it did the opposite thing we were trying to do in the film. I just thought the continuation made it sort of like `Hogan's Heroes.' Remember that line at the end of the movie? `Tonight's movie has been "M*A*S*H". . . .' And that was what it was."

Altman confesses that he occasionally watches his old movies and feels each one is special in its own way. "I like them all. It's like talking about your children. They all were a part of my life and it occupies a lot of your life when you make these films.

"I'm a sucker for my own work."



Egyptian: "Queen of Diamonds," 10 a.m.; "Slacker," 1 p.m.; "Paris Is Burning," 4 p.m.; "American Dream," 7 p.m.; "In the Shadow of the Stars," 10 p.m.

Holiday I: "Absolutely Positive," 10 a.m.; "Thank You and Good Night," 1 p.m.; "Privilege," 4 p.m.; "Christo in Paris," 7 p.m.; "The New Morning of Billy the Kid," 10 p.m.

Holiday II: "Margarit and Margarita," 10:15 a.m.; "Little Noises," 1:15 p.m.; "Red Dawn," 4:15 p.m.; "End of the Night," 7:15 p.m.; "Requiem for Dominic," 10:15 p.m.

Holiday III: "Over the Threshold," 10:30 a.m.; "White Lies," 1:30 p.m.; "Untama Giru," 4:30 p.m.; "Trust," 7:30 p.m.; `Raspad," 10:30 p.m.

Prospector: "Three Women," 10 a.m.; "Women Directors," 1 p.m.; "Straight out of Brooklyn,' 4 p.m.; "Prison Stories: Women on the Inside," 7 p.m.; "Short Wave," 10 p.m.

Sundance: "Desert Bloom," 4:30 p.m.; "Amazonia," 7:30 p.m.

Trolley Corners: No screenings.


Egyptian: "A Little Stiff," 10 a.m.; "Prison Stories: Women on the Inside," 1 p.m.; "One Cup of Coffee," 4 p.m.; " Dr. Petiot," 7 p.m.; "Privilege," 10 p.m.; "The Golden Boat," midnight.

Holiday I: "Uminchu: The Old Man and the East China Sea," 10 a.m.; "The Restless Conscience," 1 p.m.; "Stop Short," 4 p.m.; "Broken Meat," 7 p.m.; "Thank You and Good Night," 10 p.m.

Holiday II: "Popeye," 10:15 a.m.; "Discovery Program," 1:15 p.m.; "Waltz in Old Havana," 4:15 p.m.; "Twenty-One," 7:15 p.m.; "Iron Maze," 10:15 p.m.

Holiday III: "Czech Verite," 10:30 a.m.; "The Enchantment," 1:30 p.m.; "Paradise View," 4:30 p.m.; "Trouble Behind," 7:30 p.m.; "Coney Island," 10:30 p.m.

Prospector: T.B.A., 10 a.m.; "The Juniper Tree," 1 p.m.; "Daughters of the Dust," 4 p.m.; "Sure Fire," 7 p.m.; "Hangin' with the Homeboys," 10 p.m.

Sundance: "Smooth Talk," 4:30 p.m.; "Trust," 7:30 p.m.

Trolley Corners: No screenings.

Z Place: "Tanner '88," 1 p.m.