If you were like me, when you saw the trailer for Mr. Popper’s Penguins, you fell out of your seat laughing at how bad it looked. Jim Carrey? In a movie in which he has terrible-CGI pet penguins? Whose idea was this? I was sure I was going to be in for a terrible time. Or, perhaps it would be one of those cases where the movie is so bad and so pandering toward 6-year-olds that I might have a blast with it. Surprisingly, it’s none of those thing, although don’t get too excited. Just because it’s not terrible doesn’t mean it’s any good.
So, yes, the film stars Jim Carrey as Mr. Popper, a man who deals in real estate, primarily in convincing people to sell their properties so that the company he works for can develop something more lucrative on the land. He’s divorced from his wife, Amanda (Carla Gugino), on rocky ground with his kids, Janie and Bill (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton), and he has no friends. He’s focused almost solely on his work, which after the film’s opening scene involves him attempting to convince one Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury) to sell her restaurant.
Popper’s father recently died, and he was sent a package in the mail, as per the will. It’s a crate, and upon opening it, a frozen penguin appeared. It quickly thaws out and then starts causing minor damage to his expensive apartment. Despite that, it’s relatively well-behaved. Popper doesn’t want it, though, and attempts to send it back, only to be mailed five more penguins, all with one character trait which will be used to tell them apart, not that you ever actually need to do that.
Obviously, this premise is supposed to be inherently funny. Kids love penguins, kids intermittently love Jim Carrey, and seeing the funny animal with the funny man should create laughter. The problem comes from the filmmakers running out of ideas relatively quick, and the penguins being too well-behaved to lead to hilarity. They basically do what they’re told and only misbehave on occasion.
Essentially, the penguins act as a catalyst for Popper to get his priorities straight and his life back in “order,” which for a family movie means that he needs to fix the relationship he has with his kids, reconcile with his wife, and learn that family comes before everything else. And, in order to cause a bit of tension and keep everyone from falling asleep, there’s also a zookeeper (Clark Gregg) who shows up every now and then and tries to convince Popper that the penguins don’t belong in his apartment, but in a zoo. That somehow makes the zookeeper the villain, even though he’s right on every account.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins is sentimental and sweet and harmless and if that’s all you need for a family movie, it’ll do the job. There are a couple of jokes only the adults will get, a lot that will be funnier to kids than to their parents, and it moves at a decent clip and only plays for just over 90 minutes, meaning it won’t eat up a large portion of the day. It reinforces familial values, and it’s not so bad that it’s unwatchable. You can do a whole lot worse.
It’s not even that the movie is entirely devoid of humor, either. Jim Carrey is generally a funny person, and he gets a few moments here. A problem for most of the adults in the crowd will be that the penguins take away a great deal of the comedic spotlight. Instead of playing against one another, Carrey kind of just lets the penguins do their thing, all while he stands in the background. For some of the film, a cardboard cutout of Jim Carrey could have been standing there while the CGI artists rendered the penguins doing the funny things around him.
Speaking of the CGI penguins, they generally look pretty horrible. It’s the lighting and the textures, I think. They often don’t look like they’re actually in the scene; they appear to be added afterward, which leads to a disconnect. There are times they look fine, but a bit of research suggests that these might be the points when real penguins were used. Or maybe certain anthropomorphized actions are easier to animate than others. Who knows? The point is that there are moments when the penguins don’t look real, and when most of the appeal is in the animals, this is a problem.
It might have been funnier to see Jim Carrey go full-manic mode in this picture. Then, perhaps, he could match the energy that the penguins bring. In supporting roles, veterans Angela Lansbury, Philip Baker Hall and Dominic Chianese get small, but funny roles. Ophelia Lovibond plays Popper’s assistant, and speaks primarily in alliteration using the letter P, which must have been tough.
Is Mr. Popper’s Penguins worth seeing? Not really, unless you have to entertain some kids for 90 minutes. Those under the age of 10 won’t find much to dislike, while those over that age will be entertained but only moderately so. The penguins are sometimes unconvincing, the laughs come and go, and Jim Carrey isn’t the draw that he once was. But it’s well-paced, has some good gags, reinforces values that family movies should, and I’m happy that it was far better than it easily could have been.