STRONG TO THE FINICH
Popeye Village Is One of the Mediterranean’s Most F*cked Up Attractions
It’s almost like Popeye Village put an ad in the paper saying, ‘Seeking cynical chill pot smokers with zero acting skills for multiple roles at over-priced tourist trap.’
The romance factor is what draws most people to the Mediterranean island of Malta. From the turquoise sea crashing into its Princess Bride-like cliffs to the thick stone buildings that make everything feel castle-like, Malta’s official soundtrack could be a combo of Braveheart and that soft porn brown-chicken-brown-cow tune.
The main draw to Malta for me personally is that it’s pretty cheap and one of the only warm-ish places in all of Europe during the winter months. At the time, I’m living in northwestern Spain where it pisses rain every day for six months straight, so I figure Malta is an ideal place to get some vitamin D and some much-needed hanky-panky alone time with my long-distance French lover, David.
We do some of the classic frugal-couple-on-a-beautiful-island things—eat the most mediocre food (cheap!), gape at pretty water (free!), instagram old buildings we’re not willing to pay to go inside of (too boring!), and hire a random dude with a barely legal boat to drive us around because he’s one-fifth the price (smart!). Being that I’m a bit of a freak and have a twisted idea of romance, though, my only must do on this trip is to drag David to what I’m sure will be a hilariously bizarre tourist trap (intended for children!) called Popeye Village.
Only Gen X’ers, our parents, and fans of terrible musicals have probably ever heard of, much less seen, the movie Popeye, starring Robin Williams and that peek-a-boo eyes chick from The Shining. You’re missing out if you haven’t, as it’s the weirdest and most problematic “kids” movie I’ve ever gone back and revisited—Brutus is basically a terrifying, would-be rapist, Popeye’s a damaged, insecure meathead with daddy issues, Olive Oyl is a codependent anorexic with terrible taste in men, and quite a bit of the movie itself takes place in a freak’n brothel. But it was the '80’s when it was pretty much anything goes. Despite how bad this movie was, or perhaps because of this, I had to go see for myself how they were making money off of a 38-year-old movie no one ever cared about.
Luckily our hotel is only five miles away, so it takes us less than an hour to get to Popeye Village. But for those staying anywhere else on the island, it could take up to two hours, despite the fact Malta is only 17 miles long. The bus drops us off on the side of the highway, about a 20-minute walk from Popeye Village. But we don’t mind the stroll down an old country road through Maltese farmland because we get to feed a lonely horse some apples out of our hands and take pictures of dramatic scarecrows on the way.
After paying almost 20 bucks each at the front desk, which is run by women who seem almost apologetic for how much money we’re shelling out to get in, we venture onto this old movie set turned… dusty old movie set. Having worked in the New York City film industry for seven years in the art department, I expect the set to be way smaller in real life than it appeared in the film. Movie magic makes almost everything look better. But this “seaside village” takes all of 57 seconds to walk through and consists of maybe a dozen rotted wooden cottages in need of a serious paint job. If I’d come to Popeye Village with children like literally everyone else here, I’d be pissed. There’s maybe an hour’s worth of stuff to do, if that, since it’s the wintertime and the beach and their random putt-putt golf course are both closed.
As soon as David and I enter the town, we’re stopped by a tall, skinny guy wearing an outfit that seems like he’s pieced it together from the Salvation Army, not one tailor-made by a theme park that charges this high for admission. His navy blue suit and matching cap are on point for the Brutus character he’s playing, but the cheap beard falling off his face and the pillow stuffed under his shirt to make his lanky body seem bulkier are hysterical. They honestly couldn’t have picked a skinnier dude to play a character known for only two things—being an enormous, angry brute and a total sleazeball. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Brutus is a massive man, we’re talking one step down from the Hulk, and he spends the whole movie breaking almost anything he touches, even tossing grown men across the brothel the way he would a pair of keys.
“Heeeey there lady,” Brutus says in a thick accent that sounds Eastern European. “You want take picture with Brutus ehhhhh?” Besides being a toxically masculine bully, the main thing Brutus is known for is not understanding consent. Hell, his whole “shtick” is refusing to leave Olive Oyl alone, even after she dumps him for Popeye. So, in this regard, this straight twinkish-version of Brutus is actually right on.
I go along with it and let him hit on me in all good fun and even join him when he starts dancing to Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas as it’s belted out over the intercoms. I kid you not, we even twerk together. It’s hilariously inappropriate. David loves this Brutus guy as much as I do because this bad actor gives zero fucks that this place is supposed to cater to children.
Speaking of children, we soon realize the kid’s puppet show is about to start, so we head into a tiny dusty theater inside one of the rotting cottages. No surprise here—the sock puppet’s costumes are just as sad as Brutus’. I’m not sure if they do a new show every day or if these actors even have a script, but it seems to me like they’re just making this shit up as they go. It’s only Olive Oyl and Brutus in this particular performance. The show is so bad it’s good, as these old dirty puppets are worse at thinking on their feet than any of my fellow Improv 101 students were in NYC.
“How was your Christmas, everybody?” Olive Oyl asks the audience because she’s clearly come unprepared and is gonna rely entirely on crowd work. A half-hearted “gooooooood” comes from a few kids in the theater, which kinda pisses her off. She clears her throat, “Excuse me, HOW WAS YOUR CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY?!!!” Feeling a bit bullied, everyone now mumbles some version of good back to her. “Well I had a good Christmas,” she says, “but I bet I know someone who didn’t!”
Cue angry Brutus yelling from backstage, “Ooooooooliiiiiiiiiiive Oyyyyyyyyyyyl.”
What does she see in this dude by the way? I don’t like the message this couple sends young men and women. Olive Oyl not only tolerates but cares about this dick despite him being a complete psychopath.
Brutus finally enters the stage and they promptly bully us into joining them in Jingle Bells, which not even the children are excited to sing along to. Maybe because it’s January 5th. At this point, I’m getting annoyed. Why are we doing all the work here? I came here to see a bad show not go caroling. After the half-assed sing-along, Brutus and Olive Oyl do a little more improvised banter. When Olive Oyl asks him how his Christmas was, he goes into some wambulance-like monologue about how we bought a bunch of expensive presents for people and no one wanted to be with him. “So I threw the presents at their head!” Classic Brutus. After a few more minutes of this painful act between the two, Olive Oyl goes abruptly for the blackout line. “Well that’s our show! Thanks, everybody!”
David and I look at each other and die laughing. “What the fuck was that?” I ask him. He just raises his eyebrows in disbelief and shrugs like a true Frenchman. I’ve been traveling solo and going to terrible tourist attractions like this for decades now. But seeing David enjoy it as much as I do makes me think maybe we are even more compatible than I thought. And having someone think something is as bonkers as you do really does make it more fun.
Being the thoughtful guy he is, David then suggests we grab a coffee and water. He always knows what I like and need before even I do. So we head to the food area, which is even more overpriced than Disney but with maybe two options for food. Around the cafe are random games you can play like corn hole. There are also two toilet seats on top of wood boxes that say “Game Toilet Roll Toss,” whatever that means. I guess you throw TP rolls into toilets for fun… in the middle of a restaurant.
After our coffee, we head to Santa’s Village, which is located in the back room of Olive Oyl’s dusty, dark home. Despite the Christmas decorations, this place reminds me more of the set of Stephen King’s Misery than a children’s musical. We wait our turn to see Santa, who is even skinnier than Brutus but with a better quality beard and a bigger pillow under his jacket. Like Brutus, though, he has a thick eastern European accent and gives zero fucks. When it finally comes my turn, David takes pictures, like a good travel partner, to save us money from having to pay for the professional ones the 30-year-old elf is taking.
I sit on the arm of Santa’s chair instead of his lap because I don’t want to break his baby bird femur in half.
“So what do you want for Christmas this year, girl?”
“To be honest, all I really need is a better paying job,” I say.
“You and me both, honey.”
David and I die laughing, as do the parents waiting in line with their kids. Santa and I banter back and forth for a bit because this dude is so bad at being Santa, he’s perfect. His elves are just as cynical. When we finally leave this dungeon of a house and step outside into the sunlight, we see a giant chipmunk mascot and a moose mascot wearing a Christmas sweater. Like their fellow co-workers, they’re just kinda wandering around, looking for something to do. David and I follow them so I can get a photo. They head over to a bench, park themselves on it, and kick their legs out in front of them, going into full chill mode. Right before I rush up to them, Brutus comes out of nowhere and nosedives into their laps. They pat him on the back as he just lays there. It’s kinda cute but weird. Like everything at this place.
It’s almost like Popeye Village put an ad in the paper saying “Seeking cynical chill pot smokers with zero acting skills for multiple roles at over-priced tourist trap.”
Just then the music comes on over the loudspeaker. Brutus and the mascots pull themselves up like old men just as Popeye, Olive Oyl, and a bunch of random people dressed in Candy Cane tights emerge from Popeye’s house. They all get into a two-line formation and start doing a rehearsed dance. David and I watch amazed as they do one coordinated dance after another to Destiny’s Child and poppy Christmas song remixes. It’s actually quite impressive. Brutus is not only into it, he’s a damn good dancer. Forget everything I said about being lazy potheads. These characters nail this little musical number and are amazing.
Around song number six, Popeye and Olive Oyl do a little solo routine out in front. It’s meant to be romantic, but then Popeye promptly drops her on her ass without even offering to help her back up. She sits there with an exaggerated WTF look, arms crossed all dramatically, waiting for her piece of shit boyfriend to extend his hand.
After an hour bus ride home and our whole day’s budget spent at Popeye Village, I tell him I think I'm finally ready to try this boyfriend/girlfriend thing out. Some girls need flowers and romance. All I needed was overpriced, morbidly offbeat tourist trap full of stoners for me to come around. I guess I was wrong about Malta. Maybe this island really is all about romance, even for twisted people like me who just came because it’s warm and cheap.