Jim Carrey’s return to lighter comedic fare comes in the form of the family film, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”, a mediocre film that often plays to the lowest common denominator when it comes to humor and laughs. Carrey’s inspired performance makes this watchable but the questionable undercurrents of the plot are troubling, even if they will sail over the heads of the littlest of viewers.
Loosely adapted from the 1938 Newberry Award winning children’s novel of the same name (as in the title is the same and both feature penguins), “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” introduces us to Tom Popper (Carrey), a beyond wealthy real estate professional living in the upper reaches of a New York City co-op. He is a divorced father of two and is largely a self-absorbed man, who has frequently erred on the side of his own interests than those of others around him.
Perpetually presided over by his punctual and persistent patron, Pippi (Opehlia Lovibond), Mr. Popper has long chased away issues from childhood which saw his father traveling the world and only communicating with him via radio signals from remote and distant lands. His past issues and his present day life cross paths when he learns of his father’s passing and coincidentally receives an odd delivery to his doorstep.
Housed in a wooden crate is a giant block of ice and one lone penguin. Perplexed by the package, Popper decides to donate his new pet to the local zoo. However, before the zoo handler (Clark Gregg) can arrive, a second package shows up containing five more of the tuxedoed birds and for Tom, they arrive conveniently prior to his son’s birthday. When his children and ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino) arrive for a birthday party, the penguins are on the loose and the kids fall instantly in love with them. When the zoo handler comes to claim the penguins, Popper convinces him to hold off and return a few days later.
Concurrent to all of this is Popper’s being hired by a team of investors who are interested in buying the famed Tavern on the Green restaurant from its resistant and hesitant owner, Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury). Brought in as the chief negotiator, Popper tries to win over Mrs. Van Gundy, despite having some deep personal connections to the restaurant and its history.
Watching “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”, you really don’t get enough of any of these storylines to make anything resonate. What the film markets and sells the viewer on is the penguins and they are here in plentiful fashion, both in real and CGI form. However, other than waddling around and defecating constantly, they don’t really do all that much. The penguins are really just window dressing to a film that spends a great deal of time focusing on more grown up themes of abandonment, parental love, and the idea that wealth is not defined in dollars but the love and connections you have to those most important to you.
Entirely predictable and often choosing to take the lazy and easy approach to humor, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is a watchable mess. Once I returned home, I looked back over the plot of the source material and found a book that, while dated in its elements, would have made a much more interesting script.
In that version, Carrey would have been a poor painter struggling to make ends meet for his family. A gift of a penguin would have led to an eventual dozen and Mr. Popper’s creation of a circus show. That circus show would take the Popper penguins from their local community to venues around the country and eventually on stage in New York City. The book would seem to provide Carrey some intriguing opportunities to mix humor, drama commensurate with the economic times we are living in, as well as countless opportunities for clever, real, and entertaining interactions with his penguins.
And you know the more I think about it…I want that movie instead.