Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Full disclosure: It’s possible that a certain amount of residual childhood affection for Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1938 kid-lit classic prompts me to turn an indulgent eye on the new Jim Carrey movie Mr. Popper’s Penguins. But I don’t think so.
Quite the contrary, the preview trailer made it clear that director Mark Waters and writers Sean Anders, John Morris and Jared Stern would be preserving precious little of what the Atwaters wrote—there’s a guy named Popper (Carrey) and he has some penguins, and that’s about it—and I frankly wasn’t looking forward to sitting through the movie. Well, the dreaded experience is behind me now, and I have to admit it’s not bad. Not bad at all.
I was in the third generation of children to have the book read to them in school (fourth grade in my case), but as childhood whimsy goes, it may be in danger of joining Tom Brown’s Schooldays and The Water Babies in the Metropolitan Museum of Books Kids Don’t Read Anymore. My niece tried reading it to her third-grade class but gave up halfway through; the class found it dull. (I’m proud to say I bore up manfully under the shattering news.)
The kids will probably have no such problem with the movie; it includes all the penguin-pee, fart, potty and soccer-ball-to-the-crotch jokes Waters and company could stuff in without losing their PG rating. As for the story, the bemused hero is still named Tom Popper, but instead of a humble house painter he’s a high-stakes Manhattan real-estate wheeler-dealer, specializing in selling eight-figure properties to people who don’t want to buy and buying them from people who don’t want to sell. As in the book, he has two children named Billy and Janie (Maxwell Perry Cotton and Madeline Carroll respectively), but he’s been a workaholic bust in the daddy department, and his wife (Carla Gugino) has divorced him.
As the movie opens, Popper is embarking on a delicate venture to buy Central Park’s Tavern on the Green from the eccentric old biddy who owns it (Angela Lansbury). At this worst possible time, Popper learns of the death of the father he barely knew (when he was a kid Dad was also a workaholic, forever gallivanting off for years at a time exploring remote corners of the world), and of his own inheritance. Of course, it’s six penguins that the old man picked up in the course of his travels.
When son Billy mistakes the birds for his birthday present, Popper is forced to abandon his plans to get rid of them, but not before dangling them in front of a zookeeper (Clark Gregg) who spends the rest of the movie plotting to kidnap the penguins for his exhibit. Popper, meanwhile, spends that time trying to soft-soap the old lady and, thanks to the penguins, re-establishing an affectionate rapport with his estranged wife and kids. In both efforts he is abetted by his assistant Pippi (the charmingly named Ophelia Lovibond), who suffers from a bad case of Peter Piper syndrome—nearly every word she utters starts with the letter P.
The script is straight from the standard film-school textbook for Warm Family Comedy 101. It follows closely the pattern of 1997’s Liar Liar, only with a daughter as well as a son, and penguins instead of enforced honesty to catalyze the action. In that sense, it is far less imaginative than the Atwaters’ book, which was certainly original in its day.
Nevertheless, the movie’s very lack of surprises has its own cozy comforts, providing a sort of favorite-old-shoe framework for Carrey’s unique brand of slapstick sincerity.
It also provides a framework for penguin antics, and in truth, it’s almost impossible to tell where the real birds end and the computer-animated ones take over (though it’s pretty obvious that there are far more pixels than feathers in the final result). There’s even a nifty, rather touching little scene of Carrey and the penguins dancing together; it’s at once a remnant of the book (in which Popper works the penguins into a vaudeville act) and an oblique homage to Dick Van Dyke in Disney’s Mary Poppins.
There are far worse movies to treat the kids to than Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Who knows, it may even prompt my niece’s students to give the book another chance.