Posted by: C.E. Chambers | July 1, 2011

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: Film Review

theatrical release poster

By C.E. Chambers

Posted July 1, 2011

“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is a delightful film for the entire family and will be enjoyed for years to come.  Jim Carrey is at his best, endearing rather than madcap, and has a wonderful supporting cast.  Viewers may need to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief for some of the scenes to work, but that’s part of the film’s charm.

The tagline that appears after the closing credits assures viewers that “No penguins were harmed in the making of this film.”  It impishly adds, “On the other hand, Jim Carrey was bitten mercilessly but he had it coming.”  (The American Humane Society gave the film a “No Animals Were Harmed”® rating of “Outstanding.”)

Gentoo penguins from Antarctica were trained to perform on cue to make this movie.  Computer-generated imagery was also used.  The Gentoo are reputed to be highly intelligent but, as Jim Carrey complained in a post-production videotaped interview, very noisy.  Indeed, one of the film’s characters (a perplexed and sleepless neighbor of Tom Pepper) complains about “shrieking, cackling, trumpeting sounds.”

The movie was inspired from a classic children’s novel of the same name written by Richard and Florence Atwater.  A man inherits penguins that make his life miserable but he reconsiders when his estranged wife and children become enchanted by them.  That’s just the beginning of a surprisingly complex storyline.

As a boy in the 1970s, Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) communicates with his father, an avid explorer, via ham radio.  He receives calls from exotic places like Marrakesh and New Guinea.  In 1980 his father becomes heavily involved in something he calls his “legacy” and Tom waits in vain for his communications.

Thirty years later, Tom, like his father, isn’t wasting any opportunities.  He’s a high-powered real estate broker in New York who has a knack for convincing the owners of prestigious properties to sell to him.  The implication is that he neglected his family in pursuit of personal glory and that’s why he’s divorced.  His two children prefer to hang out with their mom on weekends even though he has visitation rights.

Tom’s father, still an adventurer, passes away and a large wooden crate is delivered to his son’s stylish apartment.  “It’s too small for a yurt,” Tom sarcastically remarks.  Inside is a living, breathing Gentoo penguin.  Tom, on his way to an appointment that could define his entire career, fills his Italian bathtub with ice and leaves.   (This sets the stage for an extremely well-done scene with what truly looks like Carrey, but may have been a stunt man, being carried away facedown by a sudden cascade of water.)

Elegant but aging Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury) is the owner of the Tavern On the Green—the last remaining private property in New York’s Central Park.  Will she sell to Tom?  She’s refused 1,000 other offers.  The renowned restaurant has been in her family for three generations and her staff are “like family.”  She seems more interested in learning about Tom’s character than she does in talking about her property.  Tom lies about the “magical weekends” he spends with his kids.

Tom’s life starts to turn upside down.  Mrs. Van Gundy refuses his offer which lowers his boss’s estimation of him. Tom tries to return the penguin to Antarctica without luck.  Neighbors in his apartment building start to complain about the strange sounds and Tom is blackmailed by a desk clerk who’s been watching penguin antics on an in-house monitor.

To Tom’s horror, he receives another crate in the mail containing five more penguins.  The noisy birds quickly begin to destroy his fashionable chrome, black, and midnight blue living quarters.  He contacts police and other authorities for help but they inform him that penguin problems are out of their jurisdiction.

When Tom’s ex-wife and children fall in love with the goofy penguins, that’s when the fun really begins.  Tom decides to keep them but must find someone to watch them while he’s at work.  He also has to ward off a pushy zoo employee who wants them (he warns about “beak rash”), construct an Antarctic-type environment, and he has to persuade his ex-wife to start dating him again.

Not to mention, Tom needs to convince recalcitrant Mrs. Van Gundy to sell her restaurant, which has served the likes of Winston Churchill and Fred Astaire, so his name will be added to his real estate firm’s prestigious lineup.

When the energetic penguins and their darling new babies shriek, cackle, and trumpet at night, Tom, lying sleepless in bed and worried about his neighbors, intones, “People love the sound of nature.  People love the sound of nature.

He also begins to pray before meals: “Dear Lord, thank you for the food we’re about to eat.  Please use your mighty power to stop the melting of the polar ice caps.” (see promotional trailer)

Carla Gugino, who plays Tom’s estranged wife, is wonderful as a woman who interacts with her former husband in a positive and rational way.  It’s a refreshing departure from the customary on-screen bickering between bitter ex-spouses.  Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton, as Tom’s wary children, don’t overplay their scenes.  In fact, good will sometimes beams from the faces of these three supporting actors, causing the conjecture that it wasn’t just the folks who wrote the tagline after the closing credits who enjoyed working with Jim Carrey.

There’s a charming scene where Tom is teaching the penguins to dance that should have been extended.  Otherwise, I don’t know if I would want to change anything about this film.  Another highlight is the “premier cultural event” at the Guggenheim Museum with Mrs. Van Gundy, Tom, and his penguins.  Both are a credit to the talented people behind the computer-generated imagery.

Jim Carrey’s dresser, David Page, outfitted him in some elegant, eye-catching suits.  “Ice Ice Baby” by rapper Vanilla Ice is a very effective musical accompaniment to the closing credits.

(Rated PG: man hit with a baseball; penguins doing what comes naturally: a little flatulence and defecation)

(Written by C.E. Chambers and published online July 1, 2011.)

NOTE:  Box office breakdown by http://nymag.com:  “…Despite opening at only No. 3,  Mr. Popper’s Penguins (opening weekend gross: $18.2 million) not only exceeded box office expectations by some 20 percent, but also cost roughly a quarter of the $200 million Green Lantern.…And if it seems odd to call a third-place film the winner when box office watchers are declaring it a sign of [Jim] Carrey’s waning career, look at his box office history.  His last two wide-release comedies, Yes Man and Fun with Dick and Jane, opened similarly ($18.3 and $14.4 million, respectively) and both went on to gross around $100 million….”

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