(2011) Family (20th Century Fox) Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Philip Baker Hall, Clark Gregg, David Krumholz, Angela Lansbury, Ophelia Lovibond, Andrew Stewart-Jones, James Tupper, Madeline Carroll, Jeffrey Tambor, Dominic Chianese, Maxwell Perry Cotton. Directed by Mark Waters
Let’s face it, penguins are hot in Tinseltown. With March of the Penguins, Surf’s Up, Happy Feet one and too and Farce of the Penguins all out there – not to mention the penguins in Madagascar and Earth, these Antarctic flightless fowl have been regulars on multiplex screens for years.
So it seems pretty natural that this 1938 award-winning children’s novel would be the basis of a feature film. Seems like a slam dunk, right? Well, if you loved the book be prepared for a few changes here and there.
Thomas Popper Jr. (Carrey) is a divorced real estate executive who specializes in the art of the deal. He can cajole nearly anyone to part with their New York City landmark so that the greedy company he works for can make obscene profits, pleasing bosses Franklin (Hall) and Reader (Chianese) who keep finding one excuse or another to keep Popper from a full partnership.
Popper’s assistant Pippi (Lovibond), who speaks sentences peppered with Peas…that is, words that start with the letter P, is invaluable, making sure he attends society functions on time and tries to keep him on track with his kid visits.
Popper’s ex Amanda (Gugino) gets on well with him, although she is dating Kent (Krumholz), a naturalist whom the kids are kind of ambivalent towards. Their feelings towards Dad, however, are very clear – they hate him, particularly teen daughter Janie (Carroll) but son Billy (Cotton) feels let down by his dad who makes all sorts of promises that aren’t kept. In fact, Popper’s absence from his children’s lives mirrors that of his own father, an adventure-seeker who was always in exotic locations but rarely home; he mostly communicated with his son by ham radio.
Popper is well on his way to repeating his dad’s mistakes. However, his dad passes away, leaving a souvenir from his adventures in his will. This turns out to be a Gentoo penguin. NOT what he had in mind. He needs to get rid of the penguin – his building association has a strict no pets rule. After a number of fruitless attempts to have the penguin taken away, he finally contacts the New York Zoo to take the furry friend – which has gone from being one penguin to six thanks to an error in communication (yes, another crate shows up at his door). Six penguins, I can tell you, are NOT really a good fit for an upscale Manhattan penthouse apartment and he’s forced to bribe the security guard not to tell the association that he was violating the no pet rule.
Because now, instead of wanting to get rid of them, Popper wants to keep them. It seems his kids love the penguins – Billy has mistaken them for his birthday present which his Dad had forgotten to buy despite Pippi’s reminders. Popper desperately wants to find a way to connect to his kids – to be a Dad again. The penguins might just be his bridge.
In the meantime, Popper is charged with getting Mrs. Van Gundy (Lansbury), the prickly owner of the Tavern on the Green, to sell to his rapacious bosses who are eager to put some condos on this prime Central Park property. She however is very finicky over who she wants to sell to; she wants someone with the right soul to take it. Popper of course isn’t possessed of this trait, so he tries to fake it which Mrs. Van Gundy can spot a mile away. Now Popper’s job depends on him convincing Mrs. Van Gundy to sell. The penguins have laid eggs, the zookeeper at the New York Zoo – Nat Jones (Gregg) – is trying to get those penguins by hook or by crook. And his apartment is a mess. Things just don’t look good for a realtor with Daddy issues in those circumstances.
On the plus side, the filmmakers used actual Gentoo penguins for the film, creating CGI versions of the birds when stunts were needed. This is some of the best CGI work I’ve seen recently – it’s completely seamless and very difficult to tell which scenes are with actual penguins and which ones only exist on a computer hard drive.
The movie is based on the beloved children’s book written by Richard and Florence Atwater back in 1938. In fact, I’d say loosely based in that the main character’s name is Popper and there are penguins involved (twelve in the book, six here). It’s safe to say that there are a lot of changes here to make the movie seem a bit more modern than the book which is a bit weird because I always thought that it was pretty timeless, although truth be told I haven’t read it since I was a young boy and borrowed it from the library. Yeah, we read back then. Reading was our generation’s videogames.
I’ve said in other reviews that I have never really been a big Jim Carrey fan. He’s done some movies that I have really liked, but a lot of them simply haven’t grabbed me. Here, he suffers from Eddie Murphy syndrome; his more raunchy side is submerged while he does a family movie. His mugging and occasionally over-the-top persona left me, ahem, cold. And don’t kid yourself, Mr. Popper appears in the title ahead of the penguins for a reason – this is Carrey’s movie all the way and the success that it had unfortunately indicates that we’re going to be seeing more family movies along these lines from Mr. Carrey.
It was nice, however, to see Angela Lansbury onscreen again. The veteran actress doesn’t do many roles these days but I imagine making a movie of this particular book appealed to her. Clark Gregg, the dry-witted agent Coulson from the Marvel movies, also does a villainous turn here.
But the kids are annoying, poor Carla Gugino who is normally an outstanding actress is victimized by a hideous haircut that makes her look like Fran Drescher which only looks good on Fran Drescher. There are few jokes that worked for my adult brain and there’s a reliance on penguin poo that borders on the epic. If you like poop and fart jokes this is the movie for you. If you’re like me, the best joke occurs during the end credits with the disclaimer “No penguins were harmed during the making of this film. Jim Carrey, on the other hand, was bitten mercilessly. But he had it coming.” On that, I can agree.
I might have been harsher on this movie than perhaps it warranted, but I think a book as wonderful as “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” deserved a better movie and certainly a less crass one. It is symptomatic that the Tavern on the Green, which much of the film’s dramatic content revolves around, closed two years before the movie opened, quite possibly in order not to be around when the movie opened. I remember the book with a great deal of fondness. The movie I won’t remember at all.
WHY RENT THIS: The penguins are cute. Angela Lansbury makes a rare screen appearance.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Carrey overacts relentlessly. Charmless, humorless and way too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: It surprised me but there were actually a few inappropriate words in the movie, and a bit of rude humor which was less of a surprise.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carrey wears a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey during the hockey sequence. The team’s mascot, Iceburgh, attended the film’s gala premiere.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel and an animated short, “Stinky and Nimrod’s Antarctic Adventure,” are among the highlights. The first two chapters of the book are narrated in a separate feature. The Blu-Ray adds a featurette on real Gentoo penguins (the kind used in the film) and their habitat.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $187.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a hit.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zookeeper
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Henry’s Crime