‘Mr.Popper’s Penguins’ Review: Positively Preposterous

When your main co-stars have names like "bitey" and "stinky"-worry. Alot. Poster from 20th Century Fox.

In the event that you have forgotten a favorite among the reading lists of your elementary school, let me sum up the premise of Mr. Popper’s Penguins. A painter and his family living in poverty win a radio contest (it’s the 1930s, just go with it) and have their letter read on air by a famous explorer extraordinaire. The explorer promises a package for the family, and when the package arrives, a penguin pops out. The family cares for the penguin, but realizes that it is becoming ill. Mr. Popper writes to an aquarium asking for help, and in response, they send him another penguin experiencing the same symptoms. The theory is that the two penguins need love. Well, love produces more penguins-ten eggs in total. The penguin population is eating the Poppers out of house and home, so Mr. Popper decides  to train the penguins to perform in a circus and are an instant success. But New York wrecks havoc on the troupe and they are arrested. Mr. Popper makes a plea to the explorer to take back the birds. Just as the explorer is about to take off, Mr. Popper gets the offer to join the explorer and the penguins to their trip to Antarctica. He takes it, waving goodbye to his family as the ship heads for the horizon.

Very little of that story is seen in this film incarnation of the popular kid’s book. What we have instead is a divorced dad, an alliteration addicted assistant, bad business, and of course, plenty of penguins. Jim Carrey plays a pompous business man, reeling in the line of self-parody. His bosses somehow tolerate his own self-promotion, so long as he helps them buy the Tavern on the Green, the only privately-owned plot of land in Central Park. Business is all Mr. Popper has, as his pristine house shows how little his kids visit and the absence of a significant other. He inherits the penguin after his explorer father passes away (see what they did there?). And because little plump penguins are so destructive, his apartment is destroyed in ways that surely would have gotten him evicted in reality.

But slim screenwriting aside, what infuriates me the most about this incompetent film is the lack of tack in just about everything. Mr. Popper is a greedy businessman with daddy issues, which plays nicely into the narrative of corporate America as greedy sons of an evil banker.  Money is the root of all evil, heaven forbid daddy falls for the big paycheck in the sky. The children are predictable as Perkin’s pies, son is close to dad because he is still young and male. Daughter hates daddy because he will never understand her, despite a desperate attempt at text-related humor. Gosh, girls are so dramatic these days, they’re like a different species!

Momma Popper has herself a new hipster fellow, and what their relationship entails must be no more than gardening together with occasional trips to Africa. There’s an awkward subplot about Ma and Pa Popper courting each other that hints at a possible reunion. Why can’t we treat divorce normally in a kid’s film? It’s a fact for many kid’s lives, in case you don’t occasionally pick up the latest issue of Parenting. If the writers were coming in with hack saws and machetes to a classic, you would assume they would try and upgrade and update the story. Nay, we still hold on to the 1950’s picture of a perfect family.

I haven’t even touched upon the bottom of penguin pool yet. That honor belongs to kiddie-laughter cheap thrills of groin shots, poop jokes, and flatulence. The number of these poor punchlines is high, so be warned. Whatever humor they left for the parents is mostly unpleasant. There are a slew of jokes about death, as in “don’t go looking at marble for too long old timer.” That could have been a one-hit wonder, but instead its rolls out every time the corporate cronies come on the screen. Angela Landsbury is underutilized as a stuffy heiress to the Tavern. The charm of Mrs. Potts is hardly felt as her scenes are brief and brusque. That leaves a good portion of the movie to the real/unreal penguins. I could hardly tell the two apart, so I will have to put my money on the majority of the movie’s flock to be of the CGI pedigree. Oh, and the entire “how to care for a penguin” question was laid out in March of the Penguins, which is even joked upon by name. I would recommend that documentary, where the penguins are real and silly humans don’t try and break their landlord’s pet policy. Or even another classic tale, Mary Poppins, where the animated penguins dance better and are house trained.

But what is actually left for grown-ups taking their brood to the picture show? Sadly, not much.  There are clips of Charlie Chaplin in the movie, and I will admit it was the few times I smiled. The clips are from The Gold Rush, The Circus, and  Shoulder Arms. But I will not take your pandering to my Chaplin passion. Perhaps kids will get curious about Chaplin beyond the fact that he “walks like a penguin.” That is my only hope for this film. The other moment is when Jim Carry lets loose and flexes his comedy muscles. I’m specifically thinking of his uncanny Jimmy Stewart impression, still great after all these years. And that’s it. Try not to drown in the penguin poop jokes!

“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” leaves much to be desired after straying so far from the original source and tearing the charm asunder. These penguins are made to be endured, not enjoyed unlike previous pictures of the popular monochromatic poster bird. Like this new Mr. Popper, I wanted to be rid of them within the first five minutes of their feathery bottoms. Pass over it until the kids beg for the DVD, and you don’t have to watch it with them: D

About Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo (CAS '11) is a Film writer for the Quad. Drawn into the world of film studies accidentally, she's continued on writing, writing, and writing about film since. She also co-writes on another blog, http://beyondthebacklot.wordpress.com/, which is about even geekier film stuff. If you have the time, she would love to watch a movie with you.

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