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Mr. Popper's Penguins
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Mr. Opus Regrets"
1 stars

Boldly making its debut in the midst of the annual summer movie derby, a time usually reserved for frivolous entertainment of the most mind-numbing variety, "Mr. Popper's Penguins" is a stark, tragic and brutally unflinching look at a seemingly prosperous and content man in the throes of complete mental disintegration. While Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) is clearly a success in his personal life, the abandonment issues that he suffered as a child at the hands of an absent father and a mother who spent her time canoodling with pro athletes left him tragically ill-equipped to handle even the most basic interpersonal relationships, hence the ex-wife and two children who, given the choice, would really rather not spend weekends with him in his expensive-but-sterile apartment. As a result of sudden developments in his personal and professional lives that harken back to his early childhood hurts, Tom finally undergoes a complete break from reality and, perhaps inspired by Edward Norton's animal metaphor in "Fight Club," he begins to hallucinate that he is now the caretaker of a gaggle of penguins that have turned up on his doorstep. Desperate to aid Tom in any way they can, his family and co-workers attempt to buy into his hallucination as well and for a while, he appears to be happy and content at last. Alas, the real world cannot help but intrude--bosses who want to know why he isn't going to work, his ex's new boyfriend, his daughter's romantic problems and a symbolic evil zookeeper who dares to insinuate that a co-op is no place for penguins--and for a while, it looks as though he is about to lose everything he has, both real and imaginary. Oh sure, the film has a happy ending in which everything resolves itself nicely but you can tell that it was tacked on at the last second a la the original theatrical ending of "Blade Runner"--my guess is that when the film hits Blu-ray, it will include an alternate ending so bleak and despairing that it will make the finale of Michael Haneke's "The Seventh Continent" look like "Judy Moody" by comparison.

Excuse me but I have to take a moment to apologize to all of you reading this. After a cursory glance at the film's IMDB page and promotional materials, it turns out that "Mr. Popper's Penguins" is actually a big-budget family-oriented comedy and not the harrowing nightmare of emotional distress that I described above. In my defense, my confusion is easily explained because the only way that the film makes any sort of sense at all is if it is looked at as a tale of some kind of shared lunacy. How else to make sense of a story that comes across as completely deranged even by the admittedly elastic standards of family film plotting? With its combination of lame slapstick, crudely cloying sentiment, poop and fart jokes a-plenty and the sad sight of a comedy titan capable of so much better reducing himself to the sloppiest and silliest schtick imaginable in order to shore up his commercial standing in the face of a string of recent box-office non-starters, this is family entertainment, for lack of a better phrase, that is so insulting in its utter innocuousness and sheer predictability that the closest thing to a surprise that it has to offer viewers is that it doesn't actually star Eddie Murphy.

Okay, let me try that whole plot description thing again. Jim Carrey plays Tom Popper, a hard-driven Manhattan businessman working for the firm of Evil, Destructo, Greedy and Mandelbaum, a concern whose primary objective appears to be buying up priceless New York City landmarks and immediately tearing them down in order to put up new Sbarro's outlets--these guys are so monstrous that if they were in charging of building the housing development in "Poltergeist," they would have left the bodies and the headstones. Popper's latest mission, the one that will finally make him a full partner in the organization, is to arrange for the company to buy the beloved Tavern on the Green restaurant that has been owned by the same family for generations. Alas, the wealthy dowager who owns the place (Angela Lansbury. . .yes, Angela Lansbury) isn't particularly interested in selling the restaurant in the first place and becomes even less so after witnessing Popper's pitch, which looks and sounds for all the world like the kind of gibberish that one might see the likes of Jim Carrey spewing on a talk show in lieu of actually having to talk about the movie that he is ostensibly there to promote. On the home front, Popper is a little less successful--ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino) is dating a new guy who is obviously a jerk because he cares about the environment and has feelings and junk like that, teen daughter Janie (Madeline Carroll) is a perpetually text ball of angst and romantic despair and young son Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) is constitutionally unable to kick a soccer ball that doesn't bean his father in the crotch--an ability that is great if you are trying to put together a trailer and need a sure-fire laugh of the cheapest variety, though not so much if you the person getting hit--and as a result, he spends most of his free time sitting in his lavishly appointed but utterly antiseptic apartment by himself as though he were auditioning for the lead role in a screen version of the poem "Richard Cory," which might have provided with more laughs under the circumstances.

Things take a turn for the kooky, madcap and zany (not necessarily in that order) when Popper receives word that his long-unseen father, a man who spent most of his days off on grand globe-trotting adventures of an undetermined nature instead of being there for his son, has finally passed away while in the Antarctic and that before passing, Dad shipped a parting gift to him, nothing less than a real, live penguin. Of course, a Manhattan apartment is no place for a penguin--something that you would think that Dad would have realized when he sent it over--but when Popper tries to get rid of it, he discovers that the city's public service system seems to have been drawn up specifically to force people to keep unwanted flightless waterfowl against their will and when he tries to ship it back where it came from, he winds up inexplicably receiving five additional penguins in the process. Inexplicably, the ex and the kids are thrilled beyond measure that Popper is now in possession of a flock of penguins and he is able to rebuild his relationships with them even as the birds poop, peck and poot their ways into his hearts he transforms his apartment into a frozen wonderland for them. All is not perfect, however--a nosy neighbor (David Krumholtz) thinks that Popper is harboring pets, his superiors are upset that their plans to blow up Tavern on the Green and dump salt on the remains have hit an unexpected snag and worst of all, a nasty zoo official (Clark Gregg) arrives to commandeer the penguins on the flimsy basis that an apartment is not the right environment for such creatures and that they will suffer terribly without proper care--and at his lowest point, it appears that Popper has lost his penguins, his job and the love of his family. It all climaxes in an orgy of nonsense in which familial bonds are strengthened once again, beloved landmarks are allowed to stand straight and tall, zoo officials are revealed to be the spawns of Satan that they clearly are and a theoretically flightless waterfowl is able to help save the day by miraculously taking to the skies. Better still, it even leaves room for a sequel, a project that I promise to see as long as a.) it is made by Werner Herzog and b.0 it bears as much relation to this film as his follow-up to "The Bad Lieutenant" did to its predecessor.

"Mr. Popper's Penguins" is based on a much-beloved children's book by Richard and Florence Atwater and having never actually read it myself--as a lad, "Bloom County," the Mother Superior scene in "The Blues Brothers" and the occasional Chilly Willy cartoon that was endured on afternoon TV in order to get to the glory that was the Three Stooges were pretty much the extent of my penguin-based entertainment selections--and surprised with the sheer cruddiness of the film, I looked up the book to see what, if anything, it had to do with the screen version. Not surprisingly, the answer to that question is "Not very much." The original story, published in 1938, told the tale of the poor-but-happy Mr. Popper, an ordinary man who, with his poor-but-loving family, finds himself caring for a dozen penguins and turning them into a performing act in order to pay for their upkeep before eventually returning them to from once they came. That story sounds charming enough and in the right hands, I can see how it might have been transformed into an equally agreeable film--maybe one done in a style similar to the one employed by Wes Anderson on his delightful version of "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Ironically, Anderson's occasional collaborator Noah Baumbach was once slated to do an adaptation of the story with Ben Stiller in the lead before they abandoned it and did "Greenberg" instead, a film only slightly more loathsome than the finished "Mr. Popper's Penguins."

Clearly, the people calling the shots decided that despite being an award-winning classic beloved by numerous generations of kids and parents alike, the original story simply wouldn't do for today's youngsters, what with its over reliance on character and nuance and lack of toilet jokes, texting references and opportunities to drop "Ice, Ice Baby" on the soundtrack and so decided to instead go with the insanely complicated mess that I have described above. The problem is that while little kids all over the globe presumably share a fascination with penguins, not to mention their digestive habits, I daresay that precious little of them harbor little to no interest in such subjects as familial angst, real estate chicanery, the nefariousness of seemingly helpful zoo personnel who appear to be dabbling in the animal equivalent of white slavery, romantic complications of the teen or adult variety or the films of Charlie Chaplin, whose early works serve as an inexplicable balm to the penguins and prevent them from tearing Popper's apartment to pieces. (In the deleted scenes of the upcoming Blu-ray, I can't wait for the sequence charting their reaction to the likes of "The Great Dictator" or "Monsieur Verdoux.") No, these are ingredients cynically shoved into the mix by people hoping that doing so will help attract a broader audience sample, forgetting, perhaps, that no matter how much additional material is thrown in for potential older viewers, few of them are likely to venture out to any movie involving a man and his adorable penguins unless they have kids themselves and then only if other, better movies are not also available. My guess is that all of this other unnecessary stuff will bore the little ones to tears and drive the older ones to distraction with thoughts like "Hey, sullen teenage girl, you are sitting in an apartment filled with penguins--no one cares about whether Blandly McHandsome takes you to the Snow Dance or not!"

Then again, maybe nothing could have helped save this project from terminal uselessness. It was directed by Mark Waters, a man whose talents have seesawed between such good films as "THe House of Yes," "Mean Girls" and the underrated "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and dreck like "Head Over Heels," "Just Like Heaven" and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," and this one ranks on the low end of that scale--the whole thing is graceless, stupid and as light and whimsical as an iron falling down a flight of stairs, minus the suspense. Despite having the kind of outsized personality that is perhaps the only kind suitable to sharing the screen with a half-dozen penguins without getting lost in the shuffle, Jim Carrey is clearly coasting on fumes and after his marvelous performance in the too-bad-you-missed-it "I Love You, Philip Morris," it is really depressing to see him mindlessly flailing about in exchange for an easy paycheck while his human co-stars, unwilling to compete with six penguins and Jim Carrey, just fade into the woodwork. (The lone exception is Angela Lansbury, who strives mightily to bring a slight bit of dignity to a situation where such a thing is at a premium--it doesn't help matters much but at least she is trying.) As for the penguins themselves, presumably performed by a combination of real birds and CGI creations, all the film does is demonstrate that while one such creature could theoretically be bestowed with a compelling personality in the course of a story, six of them are just a teeming mass and despite the efforts to imbue each one with a personality trait (one honks loudly, one farts a lot, one acts stupid, etc. . .), they never comes across as anything other than well-dressed props whose excretion habits are chronicled in excruciating detail.

"Mr. Popper's Penguins" is garbage through and through, a cynically conceived hymn to the joys of kicking back and spending quality time with family and waterfowl engineered by studio executives whom I assume make sure that they are out of the office by 5 P.M. each day to hurry home to kith and kin themselves. Because it is loud and silly and because it has been a couple of weeks since a film aimed solely at family audiences has come out, it will certainly make a few bucks in the lull between its release and the debut of "Cars 2." As a result, it will no doubt go down as a financial success but in artistic terms, it is that most odious type of failure--a kids movie that offers them nothing of value other that pratfalls and poop jokes for them to snicker at. As far as I am concerned, there is only one good thing to be said about this film and that is the fact that I suspect that it has allowed me to be the first American film critic of vague repute to include a reference to "The Seventh Continent" while elucidating the failings of a dopey penguin movie. A small victory, to be sure, but one I am glad to take.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21698&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/16/11 23:00:00
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User Comments

2/27/17 Louise I like Carrey and I found it cute. I even LOL'd a coupla times. 3 stars
3/22/15 Jerry Spray I would rather have Stinky do his business in my underwear than watch this film again. 1 stars
7/10/12 Guy with a rod Jesus this thing was vanilla. Barely a laugh or memorable characteristic in sight. 1 stars
8/18/11 Kim Kelly Maybe kids see the appeal that I didn't. Could have been much better 2 stars
8/10/11 Quang Thịnh This film is pretty cute, but actually the jokes in this film were so corny 3 stars
8/07/11 danielle heredia cute movie..most definitely for a kid though...but still cute. 4 stars
8/07/11 Erica D. I thought this movie was cute and my daughter just loved it. 4 stars
8/01/11 Bob Dog This film is a lot better than these hard hearts are letting on. 4 stars
6/18/11 Ming This film is a stinker..Not funny and waste my time 1 stars
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  17-Jun-2011 (PG)
  DVD: 06-Dec-2011


  DVD: 06-Dec-2011

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