Reviewed by Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion
Before I get to talking about Mr. Popper and his Penguins, allow me a brief rant (this time it’s only 2 paragraphs) concerning some pre-show entertainment:
I’m 100% behind the idea of a cute short film (live or animated) shown prior to a feature film. It’s a throw back to a bygone era and it gives a little extra time for the people behind you (having a fascinating discussion about how Marcus, that good for nothing freeloader, dumped poor, sweet Ellie via text message) to SHUT UP. Can we all agree that when the lights go down, the mouths go silent?
Anywho, before watching Mr. Popper’s Penguins, 20th Century Fox thought it’d be cute to show “Scrat’s Continental Crack-Up”, a 3 minute animated short featuring the titular Scrat once again trying to hold onto his beloved acorn. It’s not a bad short per se … but I’ve SEEN IT BEFORE. I personally saw it before Rio and according to the IMDb message boards, it was placed in front of “Gulliver’s Travels” too. How unoriginal do you have to be to show the same short THREE TIMES (and maybe more)? If you’re going to spin off the character into a series of shorts, fine … I get it. But especially considering the same demographic is being targeted for all of these films, audience overlap is expected and it’s simply cheap (fiscally and morally) to keep trotting this out. It was amusing the first time I saw it. Move on.
As for me moving on, let’s talk about Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Based on the book of the same name by Richard & Florence Atwater, the story is justifiably centered around Mr. Popper (Jim Carrey) and six penguins named Captain, Loudy, Bitey, Lovey, Stinky, & Nimrod. Popper is a lawyer trying to make partner who’s long since lost his inner child because of paternal abandonment issues. Obviously, the penguins are there to help him find his soft side; to be a better partner for his ex-wife (Carla Gugino), a better father to his kids (Madeline Carroll, Maxwell Perry Cotton), and a better person in general.
The plot unfolds as one expects, though anyone anticipating some bold, new take on the family film oeuvre probably needs to relax. Carrey gets to mug for the camera and show off a little bit of his warmer side, echoing his role in Liar, Liar (director Mark Waters obviously wasn’t going for The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here). And Gugino is a veteran of the genre and the seeming go-to casting choice when it comes to maternal figures with a side of romantic entanglement (Spy Kids, Race to Witch Mountain (2009), Night at the Museum), so she also does fine.
Helping Carrey and Gugino is a supporting cast that was well chosen. Carroll and Cotton give what’s necessary to their roles as kids from a split household. Ophelia Lovibond perfectly plays the plucky personal assistant with a peculiar partiality for words starting with the letter ‘p’. Clark Gregg gets to step out of his S.H.I.E.L.D. duties for a second and portray a Zoo employee trying to procure the penguins. And Angela Lansbury is always a welcome treat, as the owner of the renowned Tavern on the Green in New York’s Central Park.
Of course, the real stars of the film are the penguins. I suppose if a poll was done, these tuxedo-garbed, flightless birds would rank right up there with pandas, koalas and baby animals of nearly every kind. However, through the magic of CGI, animal trainers, and the film’s editors, what’s nice here is that each one has a distinct personality (though sadly, they’re bereft the narration of Morgan Freeman). After a short time, you can pretty much distinguish one from another on-sight, and any confusion is quickly cleared up by their actions (pro tip: their names basically tell you how they act). If there is a negative to the actions of these cute penguins, it’s the excretory humor; one gag would have been enough, they didn’t have to go for it multiple times – but I’m weird like that.
Unsurprisingly, Ben Stiller was first attached to this film (it would have reunited him and Gugino) but had to drop out. I’m glad, however, that he couldn’t be a part of it – not so much because he can’t deliver this type of role but because it would have felt like a spin-off of the Night at the Museum franchise rather than its own entity. Carrey was the perfect choice to step in, as he can deliver the comedic aspects (physical and verbal) and he also exudes the approachable, affectionate side needed in the character.
Look, penguins are adorable – to children and adults alike. While there’s nothing here that breaks the family film formula, there’s also nothing really wrong with that. Mr. Popper’s Penguins delivers exactly what you think it’s going to: a warm-hearted, slightly goofy, kid-friendly movie. If you’ve already seen Kung Fu Panda 2, this is your next best option as parents of young children, on up to the low teens.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins hits theaters on June 17, 2011. The film’s rated PG for mild rude humor and some language.