You know those syrupy family movies about a guy whose successful but hollow life gets turned upside-down by a new arrival who winds up teaching him valuable lessons? Sure you do. Disney makes a lot of them. The man has to take care of a child he never knew he had, or he inherits a mischievous dog, or his crazy mother moves in with him, or whatever. You know the genre.
Well, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is such a brazenly moronic and uninspired example of it that you’d swear it was a parody of brazenly moronic and uninspired family movies. Anyone setting out to spoof the genre’s conventions by ticking off plot points from a checklist and padding the dialogue with inanities will find that whatever he conceives mockingly is less dumb than what “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” presents with a straight face.
After years of hard work, Jim Carrey sighs, gives up, and plays Mr. Popper, a skilled real-estate shark with a reputation for being able to buy any property in New York. His bosses adore him, and they’re open to the idea of making him a full partner in the company. First, though, he’ll need to buy one last hard-to-get property — Central Park’s Tavern on the Green restaurant — from its owner, who has no interest in selling. If he doesn’t make this sale, he won’t get the promotion!!!!
Mr. Popper is good at his job, bad at his life. He’s divorced from Carla Gugino, which doesn’t make any sense at all. He is also terrible at communicating with his young son, Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), and adolescent daughter, Janie (Madeline Carroll). Why, you’d get the impression that family isn’t all that important to him — and no wonder, since his own father was a globetrotting explorer who neglected him his whole life. Let’s just hope there isn’t some situation later on where Mr. Popper’s lack of family values will endanger his promotion!!!!
Then Mr. Popper’s absentee father finally has the common decency to die, and in his will he leaves Mr. Popper six penguins. “To my son, whom I neglected his entire life, I bequeath a terrible burden that will drive him crazy and that he is probably not even legally permitted to have within city limits,” or words to that effect. Popper doesn’t want six penguins. He doesn’t even want one penguin. But before someone from the local zoo can show up to take the birds off his hands, young Billy and Janie come over to visit, and since it’s Billy’s birthday he assumes the penguins are his gift, and he’s overjoyed, and, well, Mr. Popper can’t very well get rid of them NOW, can he?? So, yes, Billy, these antarctic water fowl are your birthday present! They belong to you! But … they will live here with me, in my penthouse apartment, where you hardly ever are. Happy birthday!
Meanwhile, what about Tavern on the Green? The owner is a very fancy old lady named Mrs. Van Gundy. She is played by Angela Lansbury, but only because Margaret Dumont is dead. Mrs. Van Gundy knows she’ll have to sell Tavern on the Green sooner or later, what with her being 108 years old and everything, but she wants to make sure it’s to the right person. She considers the restaurant staff to be like family. Therefore, she’ll only sell to someone who — wait for it — believes that family is very important!!!!
Meanwhile, what about the penguins? Those birds are a handful, that’s for sure! They squawk, poop, and eat a lot. To keep them alive, Popper has to maintain a frigid temperature in his apartment, and he finally just covers the floors in ice and snow, because that’s easy and makes sense and is perfectly rational. But he starts to bond with the little bastards, too, and they adore him because he feeds them. He starts bonding with his actual children as well, and starts to woo back their mother, now that the penguins have made him nicer and more compassionate, or whatever it is they’ve done to him.
Meanwhile, what is Mr. Popper doing about his apartment building’s strict no-pets policy? First, he bribes the doorman (who might also be the landlord?) to pretend not to notice them when he takes them in and out of the building on outings around the city, which he does rather a lot for someone who is trying to keep them a secret. Apart from that, he just has to dodge Kent (David Krumholtz), the ONE tenant in the ENTIRE high-rise who suspects that Popper has pets, but who never seems to be around when Popper parades them through the lobby. Doh!
Perhaps you are wondering how much of the movie you will have to sit through before Jim Carrey finally gets hit in the crotch. The answer is 10 minutes. Perhaps you are also wondering how long you will have to wait before Jim Carrey gets pooped on by a penguin. The answer to that is 15 minutes. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” gets right to the point. And you’ll be glad to know that one of those penguins turns around, aims his vile cloaca directly at Mr. Popper, and purposely poops fish-scented feces upon him. The director, Mark Waters (“Mean Girls,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”), makes sure to get the camera right up there on that penguin’s butt. It’s CGI, of course — actual penguins are used occasionally in the movie, but all their facial expressions and choreographed wackiness and excretory orifices are computer-generated — which means it was someone’s job to tell a computer how to draw the thing that a penguin poops out of. “Make sure it kind of vibrates when the excrement comes out,” is something I imagine director Mark Waters telling his team of animators.
Meanwhile, what about the guy from the zoo, official penguin expert Nat Jones (Clark Gregg)? He would LOVE to get these six birds for the zoo, not just because they’ll be popular with visitors, but because THEY WILL DIE IF THEY CONTINUE TO LIVE IN MR. POPPER’S APARTMENT. I feel like that point is not made strenuously enough. Penguin expert Nat Jones is portrayed as a villain for wanting to take poor Mr. Popper’s pets away, but he’s also, you know, RIGHT.
Meanwhile, what’s happening with Mr. Popper’s attempts to buy Tavern on the Green from Mrs. Murder-She-Wrote? She’s being stubborn, so Mr. Popper attempts to charm her at a fancy fundraiser she’s sponsoring at the Guggenheim Museum. “I can’t have anything go wrong this evening!!!!” she declares, in case we are too stupid to understand the stakes. And then guess who shows up and makes things go wrong? The penguins! They follow Mr. Popper across town and wander into the museum, and mayhem ensues. Oh, no! Mr. Popper will NEVER get that promotion now!!!!
Hang on, I almost forgot the part where one of the penguins sees some flying birds (i.e., REAL birds) on TV and wishes it could fly, too, and we say, “Aww!” And then at the end, during the madcap escape from evil Mr. Trying-to-Save-the-Penguins’-Lives, this penguin gets tangled up with a kite and actually does get to fly! Sort of! I mean, the kite flies, and the penguin is attached to it, and I guess that counts. It’s very heartwarming!!!!
So here’s a movie (which bears no resemblance to the 1938 children’s novel it’s allegedly based on, by the way) full of dumb people doing dumb things that real people would never do, and learning dumb lessons from them, and in the process becoming better (but still dumb) people, and penguins make cute CGI faces and poop a lot, and what else do you need? You should definitely take all of your children and pay $10 apiece for the whole family to watch this movie. This is definitely a movie that is worth forty or fifty bucks. Unless you don’t think family is important!!!!
[Reprinted from Film.com.]
D- (1 hr., 35 min.; )