Mark Reviews Movies

Mr. Popper's Penguins


1  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mark Waters

Cast: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Madeline Carroll, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Ophelia Lovibond, Angela Lansbury, Clark Gregg

MPAA Rating: PG (for mild rude humor and some language)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 6/17/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 16, 2011

The best form of psychological birth control is to spend an extended period of time with a group of rambunctious kids. Mr. Popper's Penguins probably has the same effect on anyone who might harbor a fantasy of having a waddling, flightless bird as a pet.

It's not only that the penguins of Mr. Popper's Penguins spend most of their time on screen squawking, biting, mating (off-screen, fortunately), defecating (on-screen multiple times, unfortunately), and generally causing havoc. It's also that keeping such animal companions apparently means one must deal with unresolved father issues, the resentment of one's children when they don't comprehend that keeping Antarctic animals in a New York City condominium just isn't sensible, and a vaguely villainous zookeeper that has the worst sense of timing and recognizing a perfect opportunity to steal the penguins. And let's not forget the opportunity for alliteration.

The problems for Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) begin when he is a young man, communicating with his regularly absent dad via ham radio. His old man is a traditional explorer, traversing the globe for wondrous sights. Thirty years later, Popper is divorced from Amanda (Carla Gugino), has two kids of his own that he only occasionally sees named Janie (Madeline Carroll) and Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), and works buying prime real estate from under the noses of its proprietor through sneaky tactics. He wants to be partner, and his bosses give him the chance. All he has to do is purchase the historic Tavern on the Green in Central Park from its owner Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury), who has no plans of selling her property to anyone less than an upright family man.

Then he receives the news: His father has died. In his will, dear, old dad left his son a "souvenir" of his most recent travels: a Gentoo Penguin. After a misunderstanding with his father's first mate, Popper winds up receiving another five penguins. He names them based on their personalities, so there's a "Bitey," a "Loudy" (Why not "Noisy?"), a "Lovey," a "Stinky," and so on. One with a case of flight envy watches an eagle on television, and they all love Chaplin movies.

The concept could be fine in the realm of purely silly, slapstick comedy. From the start, though, it's clear that director Mark Waters is far too keen on a more realistic approach, and yes, that was just an allusion to someone employing a method of realism to a movie about a guy who inherits six penguins. Maybe it's less a matter of approach than of tone that undermines whatever comic potential might have been pulled from the material.

There's an unfettered sentimentalism to the affair, emphasized by just how many things Popper must save. He has to reclaim success from his failed marriage. He needs to win the affection of his children. He must cull the few happy memories of time spent with his absentee dad, represented by a table like an elephant in the room at the restaurant he's attempting to acquire.

Then there are the penguins, which become the target of zoo custodian Nat Jones (Clark Gregg), who wisely believes that a full-time working man with no experience with wild or, for that matter, domesticated animals isn't the right person to care for a waddle of penguins (Yes, that is the proper term). Nat is determined to capture the creatures, staking out Popper's apartment for the just-right moment to strike, which apparently is not when they escape out into the streets and follow their owner to the Guggenheim Museum where they disrupt a fancy soiree. I doubt Frank Lloyd Wright would ever have imagined his famous design would be implemented as a water slide for penguins.

To prove everyone wrong that he isn't a workaholic spoil-sport, Popper opens the patio doors to his apartment, filling the place with snow, and keeps a watchful eye on one of the birds' eggs, wishing and hoping and praying that its hatching will quash his self-doubt. It's awkward.

The computer-animated penguins, mixed unconvincingly with real ones, can be such as well. Actually, Mr. Popper's Penguins suffers from a lot of such embarrassment.

Copyright 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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