After his work in the audacious sleeper I Love You Phillip Morris, 2011’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins finds legendary funny man Jim Carrey back in pure paycheque territory. Instead of a worthwhile vehicle for Carrey’s dramatic and/or comedic chops, Mr. Popper’s Penguins has Carrey playing second fiddle to CGI penguins and working from a completely formulaic script based on the 1938 children’s book of the same name. Admittedly, though, while this is definitely a commercial adaptation of a beloved classic, it’s not exactly an abomination. By no stretch is this a good movie, but it’s not awful to an insulting extent either. On the contrary, it looks like director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) actually tried to do something worthy with the trite screenplay, resulting in a fluffy, nimbly-paced movie that kids may enjoy. Still, it holds limited appeal for anyone above the age of, say, 10.
Thriving Manhattan business Tom Popper (Carrey) is facing a massive promotion. The last thing separating Popper from a more prestigious position is the defiant owner of a restaurant (Lansbury), who refuses to sell to Popper’s employers. While preparing to go in for the kill, he receives the gift of six penguins which were willed to him by his late father who always regretted not spending enough time with his family. Popper looks to get rid of the birds as quickly as possible, but his estranged children unexpectedly grow attached to them. Sensing that his troubled relationship with his kids and ex-wife may be mended through the penguins, Popper decides to keep them, and struggles to learn how to care for the flightless guests. Meanwhile, a New York Zoo official (Gregg) is keen to take possession of the birds, thus threatening the future of Popper’s budding domestic equilibrium.
Unfortunately, the penguins’ presence was not utilised for any substantive purpose – rather, writers Sean Anders, John Morris and Jared Stern treated the birds as an opportunity to create a typical, paint-by-numbers family film that’s predictable from start to finish and coated in a thick, sickening layer of family-friendly saccharine. It faithfully adheres to the well-worn formula to the letter – workaholic divorcee Popper has trouble bonding with his estranged kids and ex-wife, then the penguins renew their relationship, and before the films ends Popper learns lessons about the importance of family (and the evils of being career-minded) through some type of conflict. It’s possible to safely predict what the conflict will be, when it will happen, and how it will be resolved. Additionally, the portrayal of the zoo official is ill-conceived – he’s not a wise advice-giver but rather a moustache-twirling villain called upon to trigger cheap conflict. The zoo official spouts pure truths throughout the movie in relation to the treatment of the penguins, yet we’re led to believe that the birds can live in a high-rise NYC apartment out of their natural habit as long as they have love. Mr. Popper’s Penguins is nothing but conventional family fluff; unrealistic, shallow and rudimentary.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins is constantly on the prowl for easy laughs, resulting in plenty of fart and defecation gags scattered throughout (one of the penguins is even named “Stinky” due to constant flatulence), on top of a scene of testicular trauma. Expectedly, all of this cheap, well-worn comedy is subpar. The film only scores laughs whenever Jim Carrey was evidently given the leeway to cut loose and improvise. On account of these moments of improvised Carrey hilarity, Mr. Popper’s Penguins does get at least a tentative recommendation. Not to mention, director Mark Waters afforded an attractive visual zest to the project, and there are a number of moments of inspired filmmaking to save the film from tedium. For instance there’s a lovely moment when it’s revealed that the penguins love watching Charlie Chaplin movies. Additionally, the digital effects giving life to the titular birds are impressive – not perfect, but good enough to that you won’t constantly think about their computer-generated nature.
In portraying Tom Popper, Jim Carrey more or less just revived the role he played many years ago in Liar, Liar. While Carrey is clearly aging and some sections of the movie suggest that he was on autopilot, it looks as if the performer had a fairly fun time here, and his sporadic enthusiasm helps to sell jokes here and there. Playing Popper’s ex-wife, Carla Gugino is strictly okay, fulfilling her required duties well enough but never standing out. Ophelia Lovibond, meanwhile, is terrific fun as Popper’s assistant Pippi, who’s fond of alliteration with the letter “p”.
At the end of the day, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is what it is – commercial family-friendly entertainment for the masses. Fans of Jim Carrey are likely to be disappointed with the lack of laughs, and adults will mourn the absence of thematic depth that’s present in superior family movies. Kids, however, will probably find this to be an easy, fun sitting, and at least adults won’t be bored out of their mind by the picture. So if your children want to see it, you could do far worse. That’s pretty much the best recommendation I can offer you.