Mr. Popper’s Penguins was first published in 1938 and has since become required reading for many elementary age children. Every time there is a film adaptation of a book as beloved as this one, it’s inevitable that there will be some critical backlash. Jim Carrey’s Mr. Popper is quite different from the Popper of the past and many changes have been made to modernize the classic tale, but the result is overall pleasing.
Mr. Popper is a wealthy businessman with a very specific agenda for his success, and it rarely includes spending time with his two children from his previous marriage. All his attention is focused on the very lucrative deal that he must secure in order to attain the position of partner in his firm – purchasing The Tavern On The Green, the last privately owned property in the Central Park Area. The owner (Angela Lansbury) isn’t going to sell to just anyone. However, when Popper’s great explorer father passes away and bequeaths to him a live penguin, his life is put on hold.
There’s a mix-up over the phone when trying to return the penguin and Popper is sent five more, turning his posh Manhattan apartment into a zoo exhibit. The children adore the penguins and for the first time since the divorce, ask to spend more time at their dad’s house. Everything seems to be going well until a determined zoo official kidnaps the penguins and the broken family must unite to bring them home.
This premise is very different from that of the book, where our protagonist is a hapless house painter instead of a wealthy real estate businessman. All of the intertwining plots make for a very messy film, but children won’t mind. There are also plenty of fart jokes (thanks to a penguin named Stinky) and physical humor to distract them.
Carrey does his patented routine again, but really for me, that’s part of his charm. I still enjoy seeing Jim Carrey do what he does best – physical comedy. For those a little less amused by Carrey’s antics, the supporting cast is pretty spectacular: Carla Gugino plays Popper’s ex-wife, Jeffrey Tambor plays his boss, Angela Lansbury as stuffy owner of The Tavern On The Green Mrs. Van Gundy, and Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson in the current and upcoming Marvel films) as the zany zoo official. Last but certainly not least is the beguiling Ophelia Lovibond as Popper’s assistant Pippi who has a propensity for speaking in “p” words. She’s quite lovely and should be on the screen much more often than she is.
It’s really a bit disappointing that director Mark Waters couldn’t have done more with his source material. His previous children’s book adaptation, The Spiderwick Chronicles, deviated from the book as well but made for a remarkable family film. However messy a film this might be, it still wraps up with a sweet lesson on the importance of family. Mr. Popper’s Penguins is cute but serves little more than a distraction on a hot summer’s day. When the mercury spikes, you really could do worse than to sit in a cold movie theater and watch a family film about penguins.
Director: Mark Waters
Notable Cast: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Angela Lansbury, Jeffrey Tambor
Writer(s): Sean Anders, John Morris, Jared Stern, based on the novel by Richard and Florence Atwater