Judge Clark Douglas pans Popper's pointless, pooping penguin pets.
Our review of Mr. Popper's Penguins, published December 31st, 2011, is also available.
Chill out with the funniest family comedy of the year!
"Can I keep them?"
Facts of the Case
Tom Popper (Jim Carrey, The Truman Show) is the slickest businessman in New York City. There's no piece of real estate he can't procure for his powerful company. His employers are so pleased that they're contemplating making him a partner. The only catch: Popper has to persuade the famously difficult Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury, Murder, She Wrote) to sell him a particularly valuable piece of land. As this business drama proceeds, Popper finds himself facing a peculiar personal crisis: without warning, he becomes the owner of six energetic penguins. Though the penguins interfere greatly with Popper's career, they do provide him with an opportunity to reconnect with his son Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton, Brothers and Sisters), daughter Janie (Madeline Carroll, Swing Vote), and ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino, Sin City).
There's a moment in Mr. Popper's Penguins in which one of the penguins backs up to the edge of a railing, stands directly over Mr. Popper and drops a generous supply of feces right in the poor man's face. I know how it feels, man. There are many moments in which this film feels almost spiteful in its calculated predictability. It takes a perfectly charming, beloved children's novel of the same name and strips it of everything except the words "Popper" and "penguins." It replaces the whimsical original tale with a paint-by-numbers plot, tedious characters, and a generous supply of cheap toilet humor. Little kids will like it, because little kids like anything in which a person gets farted on, bitten, defecated on, or assaulted by an animal. There's a reason certain types of humor are referred to as "childish."
I don't really have a problem with the fact that the makers of Mr. Popper's Penguins have completely ignored the original novel. I do have a problem with the fact that they've applied the name of a very good story to a very bad movie; precisely the sort of film W.C. Fields must have had in mind when he declared, "never work with animals or children." Even star Jim Carrey, who built a reputation on elevating mediocre material simply through manic force of will, looks a little defeated in the title role. Sure, he mugs for the camera, impersonates Jimmy Stewart and offers plenty of colorful double-takes, but the trademark enthusiasm seems forced this time around (I kept expecting to see someone in the background holding a gun to Mr. Popper's head and telling him to make silly faces).
Every story beat is telegraphed early on, robbing the story of any intrigue it might have had. As soon as we learn that Popper's central task is to procure a valuable piece of land and then demolish some historical locations on that land, we know that he will eventually be required to undergo a change of heart and fight his own company. As soon as we see a letter from Popper's late father accidentally thrown under a dresser, we know it will reappear at some crucial moment in which Popper needs inspiration. As soon as we learn that Popper's kids and ex-wife love the penguins, we know that he's going to have to find a way to keep them if he wants them all back. Their assorted reactions to him are kind of hilarious. When the penguins are around, Popper is the coolest dad in the world and Amanda finds herself strangely attracted to him. When the penguins are sent to a zoo (which, let's be honest, is the only responsible solution), the kids give Popper the silent treatment and Amanda huffs that she's going to go on a super-long vacation with her new boyfriend Richard (or whatever his name is).
The subplot in which Popper tries to win his kids back feels like a tiresome way to fill time. Actually, that's pretty much how every subplot feels, from Popper's heart-changing business story to the efforts to train the penguins to the scenes in which he attempts to steal the penguins back from a bureaucratic zookeeper (Clark Gregg, Iron Man). The only things left to enjoy are the fleeting appearances by overqualified character actors (in addition to Gregg and Lansbury, we get brief appearances from Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Baker Hall and Dominic Chianese).
"But what about the penguins? Aren't they cute and enjoyable?" you may ask.
Well, no. No, they're not cute or enjoyable, because they don't behave like penguins. They behave like CGI-enhanced gags for five-year-olds (particularly the penguin who greets people by farting in their face). At no point does it seem as if Mr. Popper is facing the challenge of dealing with real penguins; the penguins in Madagascar were more convincing. The CG work on Popper's feathered friends is pretty spotty, too, and the film concludes with a low-rent Green Screen trip to Antarctica that will inspire giggles from even casual viewers.
Mr. Popper's Penguins (Blu-ray) arrives sporting a very strong 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen transfer. Like most family films, this one is dominated by a light, cheerful, vibrant color palette which avoids shadows and fog like the plague. Detail is superb throughout, blacks are deep and flesh tones are warm and natural. The film was shot on the Arri Alexa digital camera, which has announced itself as a real contender in recent times. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is also strong, with the frantic sound design, a harmless Rolfe Kent score and dialogue blending nicely throughout. There's nothing which will test the limits of your speaker system, but everything has been captured quite nicely. Supplements include a very dry commentary with Mark Waters, editor Bruce Green and VFX Supervisor Richard Hollander, an animated short film entitled "Nimrod and Stinky's Antarctic Adventures," some rather brief and insubstantial featurettes ("The Legacy of Mr. Popper's Penguins," "Ready for Their Close-Up," "Ladies and Gentlemen," "Stuffy Penguin Theater" and "Penguin Pandemonium"), some deleted scenes, a gag reel, a DVD Copy and a Digital Copy.
Obligatory concession: if you're looking for something to distract the kids, Mr. Popper's Penguins will do the job well enough. However, if you're looking for something the whole family can enjoy, look elsewhere.
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