When attempting to review a children’s film, critics have a choice to make: either view the picture as they would any other new release or go a step further and attempt to reconnect with their younger self.
Some films are designed to function as harmless babysitters, and on that level, Mark Waters’ Mr. Popper’s Penguins gets the job done. On every other level, it fails miserably.
Richard and Florence Atwater’s timeless book from 1938 is the sort of quaint charmer that should’ve been adapted for the big screen back in the golden age of Disney studios. Remember Dick Van Dyke dancing with the penguin waiters in Mary Poppins? Even now, it’s impossible to look at that scene and not break out into a goofy grin.
What makes a film like Poppins endure is the level of craft and care that was put into it. In contrast, Popper is little more than a generic assembly line product.
I may have felt no affection toward the film if I hadn’t seen it on opening night with a theater filled with families. The children took to it like catnip while the adults responded appreciatively. I was more entertained by the audience than I was by the film itself.
Fans of the book may be disappointed to see the Atwaters’ original plot (about a family caring for 12 penguins) morphed into a dumbed down retread of the Santa Clause and Beethoven formulas. Instead of being the good-hearted head of a household, Popper is a jaded Realtor with commitment issues. We learn during the film’s prologue that Popper is merely following in his poppa’s footsteps. Once the flawed man’s attractive ex-wife and two precocious children show up, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict where this story is headed.
Ever since the nature documentary March of the Penguins became a surprise smash at the box office, studios have been all too eager to stuff the titular animals into one family flick after another. I may be in the minority here, but I fail to see the cinematic appeal of penguins, with their limited movement and vacant expressions.
When Mr. Popper receives a mysterious shipment of six penguins from his deceased dad, they all turn out to be obnoxious one-note sight gags. Popper’s inane nicknames for them don’t spring immediately to mind, but I decided to make up my own: Squawky, Flappy, Huggy, Farty, Poopy and Klutzy.
One can only imagine how insufferable this film would’ve been without the vital contributions of Jim Carrey in the lead role. Carrey is an actor I’ve long believed to be woefully underrated. His physical comedy may be grating in the wrong vehicle (I was never much of an Ace Ventura fan), but it has always been marvelously inventive.
In the last decade or so, he’s also proven to be an excellent dramatic actor in films as diverse as The Truman Show, Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Though he hasn’t had a sizable hit in quite some time, Carrey is still at the top of his game, delivering brilliant performances in everything from Disney’s motion-capture remake of A Christmas Carol to the overlooked indie gem I Love You Phillip Morris.
Children love Carrey because his comic genius is transcendently entertaining (if he had worked in the silent era, he might’ve been ranked right alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton). Unfortunately, Popper mainly requires Carrey to be a morose straight man, and his lack of energy is apparent right from the get-go.
The actor’s recent, much publicized split brings unexpected poignancy to certain moments between Mr. Popper and his children, but the script by Sean Anders, John Morris and Jared Stern is utterly devoid of genuine warmth or insight. The children like Popper for his penguins just as the penguins like Popper for his fish. If there’s a message here, it’s that love can be swayed with Pavlovian ease.
And yet, the film did elicit a few hearty chuckles from me anytime it allowed Carrey the freedom to ad lib. Whether he’s imitating Jimmy Stewart or incorporating Beatles lyrics into a sales pitch, Carrey is at his funniest when he deliberately refuses to take the autopilot plot seriously.
Consider the predictable climax in which Mr. Popper interrupts a big meeting before a disastrous announcement is made. Carrey bursts through the doors and runs down the aisle in slow motion--literally. His rubbery face contorts out of shape as his slowly yells, “Nooo!” while everyone else in the room stands around perplexed. His self-parodic approach to tackling such a shamelessly recycled cliché causes the film to instantly--if momentarily--spring to life.
The PG rated Mr. Popper’s Penguins opened June 17 at the AMC Showplace Village Crossing 18 and Regal Gardens 7-13 in Skokie. It came in third behind No. 1 Green Lantern and No. 2 Super 8 on its debut weekend, earning an estimated $18.2 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
The following is part of our Dinner and A Movie series, which runs every Monday. To read this week's restaurant review,