The life of a businessman begins to change after he inherits six penguins, and as he transforms his apartment into a winter wonderland, his professional side starts to unravel.
Usually a family movie about a man who learns lessons about life after the forced adoption of half-a-dozen flightless Antarctic birds would leave me cold (ha!). However, MR POPPER’S PENGUINS is a slick, intelligently made entertainment.
It is very loosely based on a 1938 children’s book that has become something of an American children’s classic. However, the movie dispenses with the tale of Tom Popper a poor house painter who receives the gift of a live penguin from explorer Admiral Drake. The new version of Tom Popper (Carrey) is a smooth-talking New York realtor angling for promotion. He is also divorced from his wife of fifteen years (Gugino) and has a somewhat distant relationship with his two early teen kids.
Carrey’s Tom Popper shares movie DNA with his Fletcher Reede character from LIAR LIAR (1997). It’s a return to the smart-aleck, white-collar professional role that Carrey can play to a tee.
Mr. Popper has one last task to perform before his employers will consider making him a partner in the realty company, he must find a way to get the difficult owner of a restaurant to sell her property. The restaurant is Tavern on The Green the only privately owned section of Central Park. The idea is to tear down the establishment and redevelop the land. The elderly owner, Mrs. Van Gundy (Lansbury), has resisted numerous offers for the property.
Just as Popper is focusing on this important professional task, he receives an inheritance from his late father. A crate from Antarctica arrives containing a live penguin. Later five more arrive. The six penguins have a deleterious effect on Popper’s orderly apartment and they disturb his rather emotionally detached and selfish life.
Popper has father issues. One assumes that many male scriptwriters do, too, given the number of broken father and son relationships there are in contemporary cinema. Or maybe Baby Boom dads were too distant from their Gen X sons. Whatever. The father and son element is handled with a light touch here. Carrey’s comedy and the waddling penguins take centre-stage.
Much of the comic action is created with top-notch CG penguins, but apparently there were a number of live birds used, so that at times the set had to be refrigerated. There are many fun set pieces with the ‘snow rats’ as Popper calls them. My favourite was the scene where they belly slide down the spiral walkway of The Guggenheim. What would be heavy-handed slapstick in many movies is a delight in this one.
Carrey’s performance is notable because his confidence as a veteran performer shines through. Having traveled from the broad comedy of his Ace Ventura days through to his fine performance in MAN ON THE MOON, Carrey can now shift seamlessly between physical antics, verbal comedy and straight drama. He is believable as the juvenile show-off, the frustrated dad who gets it wrong and the damaged man who can’t quite believe he wants to get back with his ex-wife. None of this is the focus of the film; it’s all occurring subtly underneath its formulaic structure.
Also worthy of note is English actress Ophelia Lovibond as Popper’s PA Pippi. She has a propensity to pronounce ‘P’ words; which again could be rather annoying but is charmingly handled here.
The film is ably directed by Mark Waters, who is best known for the FREAKY FRIDAY remake and MEAN GIRLS. And just as both of those films fulfilled their mission to entertain, so does Waters’ latest. The many kids at the screening I attended sounded like they enjoyed the CG antics of the squawking, tumbling, pooping penguins. And their parents sounded like they enjoyed the sly gags about relationships that were pitched above the heads of the younger members of the audience. That’s my definition of a successful family film.
MR. POPPERS PENGUINS runs for 94 minutes and opens in Australia on Thursday 30th June. I rated it 3.5/5.