Waddle Daddy do?

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is bland, unmemorable family fare – with lots of guano humor

by Syd M
June 23, 2011 10:59 AM | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper’s Penguins
No doubt about it: Penguins are cute. With their beady little eyes, sleek black-and-white tuxedos and their waddling, they’re adorable. And those fluffy little chicks! What Mr. Popper’s Penguins needs are more penguins. There are six, which might seem enough for a Manhattan bachelor pad, even one as spacious and deluxe as Tom Popper’s. By my reckoning, though, this movie needs an entire penguin colony, all waddling about on their stubby little legs, flapping their flippers and biting the hand that feeds them.

Only one of the movie’s penguins bites. That one is named Bitey. Another is named Stinky. Stinky is flatulent. There ought to be one named Poopy too, given how often that bodily function is played for laughs. Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) comes to have penguins in his apartment after his absentee father, a globetrotting explorer, bequeaths him a gentoo penguin. Then five more arrive. (The movie’s penguins are real, with CGI enhancements.)

At first, Popper can’t stand the penguins, but it turns out that his kids Janie and Billy (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton) love the little poopers. (This same scenario may play out in theatres across the land as parents take their tykes to see this movie.) Popper, as a divorced Dad, has a lot to make up for, so he keeps the penguins and turns his penthouse pad into a penguin playground, complete with snow slides.

There are, of course, complications. A nosy neighbor (David Krumholtz) complains about the noisy new neighbors. A zookeeper (Clark Gregg) plots a penguin-napping. And the penguins are interfering with Popper’s job: He’s a high-end real estate flipper who goes after landmark buildings, putting his company’s name on New York’s famous places. His latest assignment is to acquire Tavern on the Green, but the owner, Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury), isn’t in the mood to sell to the likes of him.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is very loosely based on the beloved children’s book of the same name by Richard and Florence Atwater. By loosely I mean that the book had a character named Mr. Popper and some penguins. The movie is a pretty standard family offering about a high-powered Type A Dad who needs to reconnect with his kids (and his ex-wife, played by Carla Gugino), reconnect with his humanity and his inner child, find his smile, be a mensch and all that good stuff – with the help of penguins with digestive issues. Popper exhibits all the emotional latitude of a penguin, which is to say not much. (Maybe there’s more going on behind those beady little eyes than the birds let on, but what’s Popper’s excuse?)

Valuable lessons are learned, but the best thing to be said for Mr. Popper’s Penguins is that it avoids false sentimentality and gooeyness, for which we can probably thank director Mark Waters, who has a light touch with material that, in other hands, might have veered into treacle and tears. The second best thing is Popper’s personal assistant Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), who proffers pronouncements in alliteratives (Ps, of course). The movie is also fairly short, so it does not especially challenge attention spans young or old, and it is peppered with lowbrow back-end humor, slip-sliding Pygoscelis papua and the sight of Carrey – somewhat less rubbery and manic than he used to be – taking one for the team whenever a little physical abuse is needed to liven things up.

This is not one of Carrey’s more memorable roles, but nothing about this movie is especially indelible or durable. The penguins (we learn) prefer the movies of Charlie Chaplin (they like how the Little Tramp waddles). Fine cineastes, those penguins. I don’t imagine they’d care much for Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a familiar and disposable bit of rainy-day entertainment that is unlikely to find itself on any lists of comedy classics.

Syd’s pick: Check out Man on the Moon from Jim Carrey’s back catalogue

Director Miloš Forman and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski pull off a marvelous sleight-of-hand trick with Man on the Moon (1999), their biopic about the late comic actor Andy Kaufman. This is exactly the movie that Andy Kaufman would make if he were making a movie about Andy Kaufman. Restaged, in all their dubious glory, are events that were completely staged when Andy did them: the wrestling matches, the scurrilous and crude Tony Clifton lounge-lizard routines, the Elvis impersonation – all the high and low points, the annoying and surreally funny moments of Kaufman’s brief career as entertainer/provocateur.

They were phony then, but looked and felt real; and that’s just how they are in Man on the Moon – only now, in a seemingly sincere movie about a real fake, they’re phoniness squared. That’s the ingenious conceit of Man on the Moon: It’s art imitating art imitating life.

As a performer, Jim Carrey is Kaufman’s polar opposite: the kind of actor who has a hard time making himself disappear. He succeeds in Man on the Moon, however, pulling off a terrific and convincing impersonation into which he finally disappears, becoming the embodiment of Kaufman the performer. It’s a vivid impersonation that is studied and careful in the minutest details, and the precision and liveliness of the mimicry adds another mindbending layer of surreality to Man on the Moon, which, like a fantastically intricate clockwork onion, is made up of layers and layers of artful artifice.

@ Syd M

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