Mr. Popper’s Penguins

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Jim Carrey attempts to disavow his party guestsPhoto: Twentieth Century Fox

3 Stars Why I Saw It: Invited to a press screening and looked forward to Carrey, albeit fingers crossed.
What I Thought: [Time Well Spent] The penguins are real, the execution is clever, and it saved Tavern on the Green. What’s not to like? Queue up Larger Than Life for the perfect pairing.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Dir. Mark Waters. Perf. Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Angela Lansbury, Clark Gregg, Madeline Carroll, Philip Baker Hall, Jeffrey Tambor. Twentieth Century Fox, 2011.

Real estate developer Tom Popper inherits six Gentoo penguins from his explorer father, and decides to keep them in his Manhattan apartment after they begin thawing his relationships with his children and ex-wife.


Though apparently bearing only minimal resemblance to its source material (a story by Richard and Florence Atwater beloved since 1938 ~ I guess I was into Watership Down and Narnia), this iteration of Mr. Popper’s Penguins provides splendid entertainment for the kiddos, and will amuse the grownups as well. For the former, it’s the story; for the latter, it’s the execution ~ and its legacy.

Of course we’re subjected to the “jewels shot” and shameless bathroom humor that comes with the territory, but to an extent far less than I feared (okay, dreaded), and it’s spot-on to its demographic, so no harm, no foul.

For grownups, the wry humor throughout keeps it amusing (mouse over the dot for a taste of it: ). Interesting execution of familiar conventions also gives Penguins a boost. The tub overflows (surprise!) but the shot just before the flood provides a unique warning; the animals’ antics jeopardize the protagonist’s Big Moment (surprise!), but instead of mere, wanton chaos we’re given a setting and perspective that offer a fresh takes on the proceedings. Familiar childhood exchanges are transformed for us as well ~ the classic, “Why are you hitting yourself?” provocation (in which one grab’s a cohort’s wrist and bats them about the face with their own hand) is elevated to excellent effect.

Fun references by Carrey’s character to songs and other 20th-century notables engage the adult mind, and to my surprise Carrey’s appearance didn’t hurt a bit; I’m not generally distracted by eye candy per se (“Eye candy” and “Carrey” in the same sentence? Inconceivable!), but whomever styled him needs to be on Tom Ford’s radar. No kidding clothing makes the man.

Finally, adults will be relieved to learn that the penguins are real, happy day (fun shots here). There’s some cgi, of course, but it’s indistinguishable from the live wires (filming was conducted on a refrigerated set, under conditions that Carrey described as “horrifying.”)

Carrey’s in fine form (his comedic talents ever-present but in controlled measure to his environment), Gregg’s “Is he good or is he bad?” demeanor is used to pitch-perfect effect, and it’s fun to see Madeline Carroll again ~ she hasn’t as much to work with as in Flipped, but does a nice job with what she’s given.

[Aside: Penguins contains most painfully contrived product placement since the fictional dilemma of State and Main, in which a director is required to place a website in a film set in the Old West. Would that the Popper’s crew have come up with as clever a solution, but they get an A for effort. (Feels almost as though it came up in the 11th hour and they crammed it into the day’s shooting while they had all the actors on set. Were that the case, A+ for effort.]

To its mild detriment, Mr. Popper’s Penguins doesn’t quite hit the note between “classic children’s book” and “modern take” ~ Pippi is particularly perturbing… probably preferable to have picked a path and proceeded pointedly. Have fanciful characters, or have aloof teen texters, but don’t have both. Had they gone “traditional” and exaggerated the characters just a bit (à la Nanny McPhee), or gone modern and maintained the realism (à la Home Alone), Penguins might have been a lesser classic. But it never decided, and that’s too bad.

But enduring cinema or not, Mr. Popper’s Penguins and its writers will enjoy adoration for decades, in that they singlehandedly resurrected the legendary Tavern on the Green restrurant, closed in 2009 after 75 years of hosting luminaries, film shoots, and revelers marking moments. Woven into the psyches of millions ~ New Yorkers and film lovers alike ~ its closure represented the painful end of a glorious era.

In adapting Penguins for the screen, the writers characterized Tom Popper as being gifted in securing ostensibly unobtainable real estate, his current task being to seduce Tavern’s owner into selling. The script also required shooting on several of Donald Trump’s properties, necessitating his approval. This in turn required his reading the script, and et voilà: Trump, inspired by what he read, has arranged to plunk down $20M from his own pocket toward restoring and reopening the iconic restaurant. Nicely done!

Mr. Popper’s Penguins presents fabulous family fun. Queue up Larger Than Life for the perfect pairing.

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