Mr. Popper’s Penguins

What It Is

As a boy, Tom Popper (Dylan Clark Marshall) misses his dad. Forever away on adventures in places like Samoa and Papua New Guinea, Mr. Popper sometimes brings back gifts, but mostly keeps in touch by short-wave radio. When Tommy grows up (and is played by Jim Carrey), he’s deeply affected by his father’s longtime absence: he wants to be a good dad himself, but he’s so busy with work that he’s lost touch with his own kids, Janie (Madeline Carroll) and Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), not to mention his wife, Amanda (Carla Gugino).

As Mr. Popper’s Penguins begins, Tom is no longer living at home, but in a posh Manhattan apartment, but spends the bulk of his time convincing owners of prime New York real estate to sell off to the trio of developers for whom he works. Assisted by Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), whose every utterance is peppered with words starting with P, Mr. Popper is in a pickle: he’s not adventurous, he’s not home, and he’s not happy.

Tom’s life turns upside down when his father dies and bequeaths on him a precious gift: six Gentoo penguins, shipped in a crate from Antarctica. After several attempts to rid himself of the penguins, Tom must soon face his own new reality: his new pets love him (almost as much as they love to watch Charlie Chaplin movies on TV, and his children love the new pets, enough that they’re suddenly eager to spend time over at his place. At the same time, Tom is trying to manage two other developments: he wants to woo back Amanda (though she has a new boyfriend) and he wants to woo Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury) into selling her restaurant, the famous New York landmark, Tavern on the Green.

Little does he know that all these plot strands — the penguins, the kids, the romance, and the real estate — are connected. But you know all too well. When Tom figures out how to manage the penguins, love his family, and protect landmarks rather than destroying them, he will at last be a happy boy.

Why It’s Fun

The penguins are sometimes quite charming, as they respond to Carrey’s broad, frequently cartoonish displays of emotion; in fact, the penguins’ performances are often subtler than his. Their faces show joy and surprise, they waddle in a line after Tom as if he’s their mother, and they’re musingly transfixed by the Chaplin movies (a visual gag that’s fine the first time, less funny the second and third times).

The story of the distracted dad who needs to let go of work in order to love his family better is surely old by now. Even if you don’t take someone as far back as Scrooge as a model (a model recently played by Carrey), you’ve seen the story repeated by Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy and Cuba Gooding Jr. recently enough that its foregone conclusion can only seem trite.

Who’s Going To Love It

Fans of the kids’ book by Richard and Florence Atwater may be pleased to see the penguins come to something like life here, but may also be disappointed by the movie’s broad strokes.

Among these strokes are Janie and Billy, stereotypes rather than convincing kids. Janie’s teen-girl worries are reduced to episodes of texting and eye-rolling. And Billy’s hopes that daddy will notice him are apparently fulfilled by making a fort out of pillows and playing a bit of soccer with Tom and the penguins.

Jim Carrey’s fans may continue to wonder at the seemingly desperate turns of his career. This movie compared to both years for his good old Ace Ventura days doesn’t come close to their wit and outrageousness. Neither does it allow for anything resembling emotional complexity or social insight, as did his work in, say, The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. As he appears to flounder in search of a genre, or even just a decent script, Carrey has too often taken up banal, predictable projects, from Fun with Dick and Jane to Yes Man. This is one of those, punctuated with penguin poop jokes.

What To Be Aware Of

Poop. The penguins provide plenty of it, more than once landing precisely on Tom’s head or shoe.

Carrey tones down his signature frantic antics for this PG film, and instead offers generally bland jokes, slipping in the occasional sexual innuendo, concerning the penguins, of course, as they end up laying three eggs. In fact, the penguins manage this without revealing their genders, and so Tom can both applaud one mother’s ambition to fly and also learn to be the best dad ever, by looking after one late-to-hatch egg until at last it does.

A visit to the Guggenheim Museum, an elegant setting in any other movie, is relegated here to a silly water-slide for the penguin, actually less fun in its execution than its high concept might suggest.

Tom is briefly sad that his father dies (off-screen), and Amanda says she’s sorry too.

The film includes minor language, usually when Tom is making fun of someone else.

See-It-Again Points

4 out of 10

Film Information

Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Director: Mark Waters
Cast: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Madeline Carroll, Angela Lansbury, Ophelia Lovibond, Philip Baker Hall, Maxwell Perry Cotton
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2011
Rated: PG
US Premiere: June 17, 2011
UK Premiere: August 5, 2011
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures

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