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Mr. Popper’s Penguins

June 18, 2011
Mr. Popper's Penguins

Back in 1938, Richard and Florence Atwater wrote a charming book about a man living a small-town life and dreaming of adventure who suddenly gets more of a taste than he’d bargained for, all without leaving home. It held up so well that kids were definitely reading it fifty years later when I was in school, and they probably still are today. Someone really should make a movie about that book.

Instead, Mr. Popper’s Penguins gives a beloved tale the full Jim Carrey treatment. No longer a small-town house painter, Popper (Carrey) is now a high-powered New York real estate agent with an assistant, Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), afflicted with an impediment prompting a plethora of plosives. He’s divorced from his wife (Carla Gugino) and distanced from his kids (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton), mostly because — naturally — he’s more focused on his own career, which now consists of trying to buy the Tavern on the Green from its owner (Angela Lansbury) despite the fact that it hasn’t existed as such for about two years now.

A wrench is thrown into the works when Popper’s adventurer father — daddy issues, of course — passes away in Antarctica and sends Popper a gentoo penguin in his will. An unfortunate mix-up while trying to get it returned leads to the receipt of five more, all “voiced” by cartoon legend Frank Welker. Initially upset, Popper finds the penguins bringing him and his kids closer, and even mending some of the rifts with his wife. He begins to cling to them, even converting his enormous Manhattan apartment into a winter wonderland and paying exorbitant bribes to what seems to be the building’s only staff member to look the other way on the no-pets clause. But of course an apartment is still no place for penguins, as insists a flightless bird specialist from the New York Zoo (Clark Gregg), who seems to have some shady ulterior motive, despite Popper’s objections.

From here it all ays out exactly as you’d expect: there’s a lot of slapstick and a few turns in the storyline, but Popper does right by the penguins, his healing family, and the Tavern on the Green, and Everyone Learns a Valuable Lesson. No vestige of the original story past the existence of a man named Popper and some penguins survives.

There is pretty much nothing here; there’s no acting to speak of, no twist to a plot we’ve seen countless times before, and no real humor. Even the kids in the theater failed to react much beyond the first time one of the penguins looses its cloaca over Carrey’s face. Subsequent expulsions failed to elicit so much as an “eww” from the audience. The one really whimsical sequence involved turning the Guggenheim into a waterslide, and even that fell flat after its setup.

I simply cannot see what inspired someone to commit what can only be described as an act of vandalism against such a wonderful book. Pippa could perspicaciously put it: “Mr. Popper’s Penguins is perfectly pointless. Pleasant? preposterous!”

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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