Mr. Popper’s Penguins exists in a gray area between wholesome family entertainment and mindless pandering to children, and I honestly don’t know which half is doing more harm. It’s lightweight, uncomplicated, and generally innocent, so perhaps it’s perfectly suited for the age group it’s intended for. On the other hand, children are unlikely to make much of the fact that Mr. Popper is a real estate developer, and they can’t be expected to appreciate his impression of James Stewart or clips of Charlie Chaplin movies. Likewise, adults will be required to suspend their disbelief to stratospheric heights; there is not a scene, a shot, or even a line of dialogue that’s even remotely plausible. The only thing anyone is likely to get out of this movie is the overall message of family and love. And the supposedly hilarious sight of penguins defecating.
It’s based on the 1938 children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, which told the story of a poor house painter with wanderlust and the penguins he received from an admiral in Antarctica. In this modernized films adaptation, Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) is a fabulously wealthy New Yorker who makes his living buying buildings from reluctant sellers. His methods are about as immoral as they’re allowed to be in a family movie – he manipulates the sellers into submission by having them imagine, in vivid detail, a wonderful life on the open sea. His father was the traveler of the family; he would go exploring for months on end, and although the two communicated frequently over a CB radio, he would often miss birthdays and other important events in his son’s life.
Thirty years later, Popper is a workaholic following in his dad’s footsteps. He’s already divorced from Amanda (Carla Gugino), and he has disappointed his children on numerous occasions. He still seems to get along with his son, Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), although he no longer knows how to communicate with his teenage daughter, Janie (Madeline Carroll), whose biggest problem is not knowing whether a boy she likes will ask her to a school dance – or something along those conventional lines. When Popper’s father suddenly dies, Popper is willed a penguin, which is sent to him in a large crate filled with ice. A mix-up on the phone leads to the delivery of five additional penguins. All of them are named after their personality quirks. Saying their names will tell you everything you need to know: Captain, Bitey, Stinky, Loudy, Lovey, and Nimrod. I guess side characters don’t come in sevens anymore.
Popper is initially overwhelmed by his sudden acquisitions, not just because of the mess and the noise, but also because he has to bribe his apartment’s supervisor to keep them a secret (pets aren’t allowed in the building). Some of the messes, most notably a flood from the upstairs bathroom, are there in one scene and gone the next. This suggests either a long passage of time or a miraculously quick cleanup effort. I lean towards the latter, since the film takes place almost entirely during the winter months. It would have to, given the fact that Antarctic penguins couldn’t thrive in a warm climate. By leaving a balcony door open and letting in the snow, Popper turns his once swanky apartment into an arctic playground, complete with slides. I guess I’m not supposed to question how such a thing would be possible, but, well, how is such a thing possible?
Anyway, Amanda and the kids soon learn about the penguins, and everyone’s heart begins to melt (no pun intended), and they take the first steps towards being one big, happy family again – and that includes the penguins, who Popper now accepts. But they’re not out of the woods yet. For one thing, Popper is still a businessman, and he’s on the verge of closing a deal with the owner of Tavern on the Green, the elderly Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury), who will not sell to just anyone. Popper must also elude a persistent zookeeper (Clark Gregg), who correctly asserts that penguins simply cannot survive in a slightly chilled apartment. If he’s correct, then why is he the villain? I’m afraid I can’t say; I’d be giving away too much.
I grant you that the film has heart. I also grant you the lively presence of Jim Carrey and the charm of Carla Gugino; this year alone, I’ve seen her in Sucker Punch and two Sebastian Gutierrez films, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I like her a great deal. That being said, Mr. Popper’s Penguins lacks the focus and balance necessary for lasting family entertainment. One large complaint I have is with Popper’s personal assistant, Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), who’s memorable only because she was given alliterative dialogue consisting of the letter P. This isn’t all that cute to begin with, and it only gets more annoying with each passing scene. Were the screenwriters taking a cue from the title? Thank God the movie wasn’t called Mr. Popper’s Perturbing Penguin Predicament and Poor Paternal Prowess.
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20th Century Fox