Your kids are probably going to love Mr. Popper’s Penguins. I saw it an audience filled with kids and their parents, and the kids laughed throughout. They laughed when the penguins farted. They laughed when the penguins pooped. They laughed when the penguins fell down. They laughed when Jim Carrey made a funny face. The movie easily walks beneath the low bar set by what passes for family films and if you want to keep your kids amused for two hours and can’t find a shiny object, then Mr. Popper’s Penguins fits the bill. There’s nothing I can say against this film that makes it any less of a joy to kids who ask nothing more than funny faces, fart jokes, and slapstick. Instead, I’m fascinated by the film’s unsettling subtext..
I’ve never read the book Mr. Popper’s Penguins, but I have to pray that it’s not as soulless and warped as the movie. Tom Popper (Carrey) is standard-issue workaholic dad who doesn’t spend enough time with his kids because he’s so focused on his career and making lots of money. Naturally, his career is shallow and makes him a lot of money, but Carrey already did Neglectful Lawyer Dad in Liar Liar, so now he’s Neglectful Real Estate Dad. But we can always throw some daddy issues on that fire and it turns out that Tom Sr. was always away on an expedition and Tom Jr. grew to resent his father. Then Popper the Elder passes away and leaves his son a penguin as if it were another souvenir from one of his trips. It’s a live creature that needs care and attention, but whatever. When Tom tries to return the penguin, he ends up getting five more due to a miscommunication (over a language barrier! Oh, when will those silly foreigners learn to speak English?).
Mr. Popper struggles to get rid of the penguins but then his emotionally distant kids see the adorable animals, start warming up to their father, his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) starts to re-evaluate him, and he grows to like the penguins because they’re adorable. And they even serve different functions! There’s Main Penguin, Farty Penguin, Loud Penguin (who is seriously called “Loudy”), Huggy Penguin, Biting Penguin, and Slapstick Penguin. Need a slapstick joke? Let’s go, Slapstick Penguin! Has been almost 15 minutes since the last poop joke? You’re up, Farty Penguin!
Obviously, Popper will learn a valuable lesson, realize that his job is awful, become more of a family man, and it’s all thanks to those darn penguins. Kids don’t know these are the beats of the generic family film and they don’t care. But I have seen them and the laziness of the script is magnificent. You could take almost any generic live-action family comedy from the last thirty years, change a few names and plot devices, and boom: You have Mr. Popper’s Penguins. What’s remarkable is you have three credited screenwriters on this thing. And you know that at least one of them got the note: “Needs more penguin shit,” which is how you get a scene where Carrey squeezes the shit out of a penguin. That happens in this movie. Popper picks up a penguin, holds him over the toilet, squeezes the penguin, and a bunch of shit falls into the bowl. You know, for kids.
You get the sense that Carrey couldn’t care less. It’s almost as if he understands that he’s going to be upstaged by adorable penguins so rather than put in his usual manic-comic performance, he just sits back, let’s the energy drain from the scene, and waits for the next time he can use his character’s forced catchphrase, “Yeabsolutely.” Kids won’t care, but I can hear Carrey telling someone “I got to say ‘Alrighty then’ in Ace Ventura, and ‘B-e-a-utiful’ in Bruce Almighty and both of those movies were hits. Give me a new affirmative catchphrase.”
Kids won’t notice that, their parents probably won’t notice that, but I’m a critic so I notice that. I can’t shoot myself with a memory bullet and make this movie a fresh and exciting experience. What I can do is notice is its depressing subtext.
One of the film’s villains is a zookeeper played by Clark Gregg (the other villain is a tenant who hates Popper and who could have been excised from the film completely; he adds nothing to the movie) . The zookeeper tells Popper that it takes expertise and the proper environment to take care of Penguins. Popper is initially ecstatic that someone is coming to take the penguins off his hands, but then his kids see the penguins, his son assumes they’re a birthday present, Popper is so desperate for his kids’ affection that he lies and says they’re presents, and now he can’t hand them over to the zookeeper because if he does, his kids won’t like him. Parenting lesson 1: Buy off your kids. It will in no way backfire and turn them into spoiled, entitled brats.
So rather than having Popper lay his foot down and explain that the responsible thing to do is to turn the penguins over to someone who knows how to care for them, Popper makes his luxury apartment really cold, brings in some snow, uses the Google and the YouTubes to learn about penguin care, and voila! Now the penguins will be cared for. When one of their eggs doesn’t hatch, Potter feels like a failure and decides to give the penguins up to Clark Gregg. But then his kids don’t like him! And his ex-wife stops falling for him! Time to suit up and get those penguins back!
The film then tries to explain that Clark Gregg was really up to no good. Was he planning to sell the penguins to a private collector? Was he going to turn them into food for eccentric rich people? Nope. He was going to split them up and send them to different zoos so his zoo, the New York Zoo (not a fly-by night fake zoo, but one of the world’s most famous zoos), could get other animals in return. That is his unforgivable crime and it is better that the penguins go and live with amateur penguin enthusiast Tom Popper because they wuv him.
What’s interesting about Mr. Popper’s Penguins is that usually in this protect-the-animal sub-genre, the villain tends to be a giant corporation, a hunter, or a selfish, wealthy individual who wants the animal for his own personal amusement, and it’s up to the heroes to protect the animals and put them in the wild or a place where they’ll be cared for properly. The hero of Mr. Popper’s Penguins is the selfish, wealthy individual who needs these penguins to get over his daddy issues and win his kids’ affections.
I think the values the film promotes are perverse. It says as long as you’re wealthy and have an Internet connection, you’re the best caretaker for anything and people with expertise can go screw and those sneaky bastards probably have their own agenda anyway. It says “Hey kids! If your parents really loved you, they would always give into your demands. If they don’t, pout and be bratty, and that should do the trick.” It says to children of divorce that dad needs to stop being a workaholic and just take mom on a date and the marriage will be fixed. And maybe kids will pick up on that.