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Review: Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011)

Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011)

Directed by: Mark Waters

Premise: Based on the book by Richard and Florence Atwater. A New York real estate dealer (Jim Carrey) receives a crate of live penguins. As he tries to take care of the animals, he finds his lifestyle changing.

What Works: In the scenes without the penguins, Jim Carrey gets into his goofy groove and there are flashes of the fast talking comedian who first captured our attention in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber. There is also an amusing performance by Ophelia Lovibond as Mr. Popper’s assistant. Had the film followed her character or someone like her, it might have been a much better film.

What Doesn’t: There are a lot of problems with Mr. Popper’s Penguins. The story does not translate well to a live action film. As a children’s book, a story can get away with a greater suspension of disbelief and maybe if the film had a more fantastic style like Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it would work. But as a live action film that is presented in a naturalistic fashion, Mr. Popper’s Penguins demands too much latitude and the gags and scenarios are unbelievable. It also isn’t very funny, using a lot of scatological humor and very tired penguin jokes. Even Jim Carrey, who is one of the most energetic comic performers of his generation, lacks any of the vitality that he usually displays. But the more serious problems of Mr. Popper’s Penguins are in its underlying storytelling decisions. The story follows the familiar format of a man who realizes that there is more to life than work and learns to value his family. It is a theme that Jim Carrey has done before in films like Liar Liar and it can make for a nice, crowd pleasing story. But what is odd and bothersome about Mr. Popper’s Penguins is that Popper already has children and it isn’t until he gets penguins that he actually starts paying attention to his kids. And further, Popper seems much more concerned with the welfare of the birds than his own family, who he ignores when a crisis strikes one of the animals. Mr. Popper’s Penguins is also bothersome in its dealings with divorce. The relationship between Popper and his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) is far too friendly. There is no evidence for why they divorced in the first place and the lack of any animosity in their relationship undermines the entire thrust of the story and, even worse, the film plays into the fantasy that divorced parents will get back together. Even the often derided Mrs. Doubtfire, despite all its flaws, never gave in to this kind of pernicious wish fulfillment. Even though its intent is to be sweet and uplifting, Mr. Popper’s Penguins encourages false hope in the children who are likely to see it and that makes this film not just a poor family film but also a dishonest one.

Bottom Line: Mr. Popper’s Penguins is not a good film. It is unclear what audience the picture is aimed at and it isn’t likely to be enjoyed by anyone. Its clumsy handling of themes about family, divorce, and reconciliation just make it worse.

Episode: #345 (June 26, 2011)