June 18, 2011

THE BIJOU REVIEW: “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” – Palatably Painless

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Watch It At Home: Fodder For the Undemanding Young
One of the running gags in MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS is that the birds are fascinated by old Charlie Chaplin movies, and can be kept calm for hours just by placing them in front of a TV displaying the silent films.  Mr. Popper’s own ambition is to do the same for children:  the movie combines Jim Carrey at his most toothlessly cute with half a dozen of the beloved flightless fowl, and dares kids and their parents not to go “Awwwwwwww..” 

Mr. Popper wants only to be adorable.  The film’s story has little to do with the classic 1938 book by Richard and Florence Atwater; instead, Carrey plays the latest in Hollywood’s endless line of workaholic, successful men who are distant fathers to their children and have to learn how to smell the roses and appreciate the little, precious things in their lives.  (It’s actually sort of fascinating to see how strong this archetype is in kids’ films, from Mary Poppins to Hook to Beethoven to Imagine That–Hollywood’s ambivalence toward its own hard-driving, money-oriented culture.)  Carrey’s Popper is a real estate developer whose own explorer father sends him the first penguin as a bequest; the other 5 follow at Carrey’s inadvertent order.  He’s at first resistent to the birds’ charms, but before long he’s turned his giant apartment into an impromptu winter wonderland; along the way, he stops his ruthless pursuit of nice old lady Angela Lansbury’s property (the Tavern On the Green restaurant, no less), and becomes a real father to his son (Maxwell Perry Cotton) and daughter (Madeline Carroll), which earns him the renewed love of his ex-wife (Carla Gugino).
There’s no particular glory in a vehicle like this, and Mr. Popper goes through its paces only passably well; director Mark Waters is the man who made Mean Girls, but there’s no attempt at any edge here, just glossy lovableness.  The sets are photographed like sets, and there’s no sense of any recognizable reality; the only accomplishment is a smooth mix of real penguins and CG birds.  The script by Sean Anders, John Morris and Jared Stern is content to get toddler-level laughs by giving the penguins names like Bitey, Stinky, and the like, and featuring plenty of gags about penguin excrement and gas.   
For Carrey, who hasn’t had a huge hit in quite a while, this is an attempt to reach the kind of success Steve Martin’s had in the latter part of his career with family franchises like Father of the Bride and Cheaper By the Dozen.  Carrey does nothing here to suggest the kind of inspiration and emotion he’s brought to his roles elsewhere, but he doesn’t embarrass himself.  Gugino is always a welcome presence, and a young actress named Olivia Lovibond, as Popper’s assistant who can only speak in sentences with too many “p” sounds, always seems on the verge of doing something truly hilarious until it becomes clear that that’s all there will ever be to her character.  Everyone else, young and older (the latter include small roles for Philip Baker Hall, Dominic Chianese, Clark Gregg, Jeffrey Tambor, David Krumholtz and James Tupper) are just there to serve their appointed functions.
As uninspired as Mr. Popper’s Penguins is, family product comes a lot worse, so parents should be grateful.  The film’s theatrical release seems almost like an afterthought (Fox only has 7 days before Pixar and Cars 2 overrun the multiplexes), but while kids will get no benefit or creative nourishment from watching it on DVD or streaming video, it’ll keep them quiet and staring at the screen, penguin-like, for an hour and a half, and that’s something.
(MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS – 20th Century Fox – 97 minutes – PG – Director:  Mark Waters – Script:  Sean Anders, John Morris, Jared Stern – Cast:  Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Madeline Carroll, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Angela Lansbury, Clark Gregg – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."