As a kid I enjoyed Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1938 children’s book Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and I’ve read it aloud to my own kids. It’s an endearing if somewhat lumpy story about a small-town man who dreams of faraway places he will never visit and is delighted when a famous world explorer sends him a penguin, a souvenir of the frozen expanses of the South Pole that he knows only from documentaries.
While the Atwaters’ book is not exactly a classic, it’s beloved by generations of readers — but not by the people who have brought you this big-screen adaptation starring Jim Carrey. The makers of this film do not love Mr. Popper’s Penguins. At all. It’s hard to believe that this junk was directed by Mark Waters, who presided over the big-screen adaptation of The Spiderwick Chronicles, a smart, scary adaptation of a children’s book series that honors its source material almost as much as Mr. Popper’s Penguins doesn’t.
Mr. Popper in the book was a typical 1930s children’s book father, which means he was a meek, unassuming family man who doted on his wife and children. Mr. Popper in the movie is a typical contemporary family-film father, which means he’s a workaholic New York divorcé with a long history of letting down his kids and ex-wife, and is naturally appalled when he inherits a penguin from his absentee father, a world traveler who spent his life going places that Movie Popper has no interest in. The kids are named Janie and Bill, just like in the book. And there are penguins. That’s where the resemblances stop, I think.
Look, if the movie were any good, I would happily forget the book and celebrate the film’s virtues. But let’s give this movie its due. This is a family film in which we get an explicit shot of a penguin butt doing its business on a man’s face, just because the bird is computer-animated and they can. It’s an apt metaphor for what the movie has to offer family audiences. Computer-animated animals really took off in a groundbreaking (and earth-shaking) movie by Steven Spielberg long before any of the kids in the audience for Popper were born, in which Jeff Goldblum said, “You were so concerned with whether you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.” Mark Waters, why didn’t you listen?
Family films involving divorce — what I call broken-family films — are now so commonplace that Mr. Popper’s Penguins doesn’t even bother to spell out the fact of the broken family. It’s just assumed. I’m willing to countenance a movie world of movies like E.T. that honestly acknowledge the heartbreak and insecurity of growing up in the shipwreck of a marriage. I have a harder time with the notion of a chipper family film in which one of the kids throws Dad a surprised look and blurts “You like Mom!” — and Dad denies it like an embarrassed schoolboy.
The phenomenon of broken-family films is one I’ve been thinking about for years. On the one hand, the intact family unit — father, mother and kids — is the ideal, obviously, and should be the norm in family entertainment. On the other hand, many children live with the reality of divorce and single-parent households. It is simply truthful for stories, including family films, to reflect the reality of divorce.
On the other hand, to take the case of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the reality of divorce is not that if only, say, we had some penguins, Dad would stop being a selfish jerk, Mom would love him again, and we could be a happy family again. I’m not saying second-chance marriages don’t happen, but for the vast majority of kids from broken families, I think it’s a cruel fantasy, and all the crueler for being irresistible.
It is just possible that even if there is no hope of Mom and Dad getting back together, it might be worth honoring the idea of their reunion as the ideal to be wished for. Even so, I think a truthful film must also honor the pain and trauma of divorce. There may possibly be a place in the world for grown-up screwball comedies like The Awful Truth that merrily split up married couples only to happily reunite them at the end with no real tears in between, but it sets my teeth on edge, above all in a family film. I didn’t like it in The Parent Trap, and it hasn’t improved with age. Give me the honest pain and grief of E.T. — or The Spiderwick Chronicles, for that matter.
Practically every note in Mr. Popper’s Penguins rings false. A big part of the problem is that the penguins themselves have been demoted from the point of the story to a gimmick in a tale of redemption. The book is largely occupied, on the one hand, with the novelty value of living with penguins and on the other hand with the practical question of how to support them. At one point the Depression-era tale actually contemplates the possibility of eating the penguins. Luckily, the Poppers hit on the idea of training the penguins to perform onstage, and take Popper’s Performing Penguins on the road.
The film dispenses with all of this (a throwaway dance number is all that remains of Popper’s Performing Penguins). Jim Carrey’s Popper is a high-rolling New York real-estate tycoon who lives in a super-swanky apartment building and does high-pressure pitches using buzzwords like “Viagratality!” and “Sex-ay!”, which means money’s not a problem, although his building’s rule against pets does cause him some grief. Clark Gregg, who plays the S.H.I.E.L.D. guy in the Marvel Comics movies, shows up as a scheming Central Park Zoo official bent on acquiring Popper’s penguins.
Mostly, though, the plot revolves around a penguin-free plotline involving the efforts of Popper’s firm to buy Tavern on the Green in Central Park in order to rip it down, and how evil that would be, because Tavern on the Green is such an iconic New York institution, etc.
Here things get kind of meta. In reality, Tavern on the Green in Central Park closed a couple of years ago, and right now Donald Trump — a sort of real-life prototype for Movie Popper — is trying to buy it and reopen it. Bizarrely, the movie seems to pretend that Trump already has something to do with the place: “You can’t even get a reservation here unless you’re dating the Donald,” Movie Popper cracks at one point.
Later, Movie Popper and ex-Mrs. Movie Popper (Carla Gugino of Spy Kids) go skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park — or Trump Wollman Skating Rink, as it’s now known. Trump’s name is plastered all over the scene. What is up with this Donald Trump as product placement? Is it a coincidence that this celebration of how important Tavern on the Green is to New York comes just as Trump is trying to reopen it? Or is a family film actually being co-opted to promote Trump’s agenda?
Movie Janie (Madeline Carroll, from the much better Flipped) is a moody teenager who is constantly texting and lives in a state of perpetual drama. Movie Popper closes million-dollar deals all the time, but he hasn’t figured out how to talk to Janie, because he has never seen a family film. Movie Billy is played by Maxwell Perry Cotton (Like Dandelion Dust). I can’t remember anything about Movie Billy, although, in fairness, he’s pretty nondescript in the book, too.
Then there’s Movie Popper’s personal assistant Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), who has a curious condition that causes her to speak in alliterative sentences linked by words starting with P. With a condition like that, it’s a break to get a job working for a man named Popper — and if he procures a penguin problem, you probably want to break into song. In the end, Pippi meets a police officer named Quint whose thing for the letter Q makes her swoon. I don’t know. Seems like a man of few words. I guess it could be worse: He might have been named Xavier. One thing’s for sure: If Pippi and Quint marry and have kids, you know what those kids will mind.
Carrey fans may want to note (or, again, they may not) that this is at least the second film in which Carrey teaches animals to use the toilet. The first was Bruce Almighty, in which he used the powers of omnipotence to potty-train his dog. In Popper’s Penguins he has to take a more hands-on approach.
In fairness, one scene is pretty inspired. It is set in the Guggenheim, which is the only place in the world it could possibly take place. There have been a number of movie scenes shot in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous spiral-shaped gallery, such as Will Smith running all the way up the spiral to confront a fugitive alien in Men in Black. That was fun, but what the penguins do is more fun — and easier. After that, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is all, well, downhill.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content advisory: Broken-family theme; rude humor, including bathroom jokes, a crotch- trauma gag, etc; some mildly suggestive and rude language; repeated profanity. Might be okay for older kids.