Friday, June 17, 2011


The main character’s name is Mr. Popper, & he has penguins. That, if memory serves, is about the extent to which the new film Mr. Popper’s Penguins is “based on” Florence & Richard Atwater’s 1938 children’s-book classic of the same name.

In the movie, Popper (Jim Carrey) is a high-powered New York businessman who lives in a sleek, spotless Manhattan apartment. He’s a divorced dad, insufficiently attentive to his ex (Carla Gugino) & two kids, an adolescent daughter & a preadolescent son. He himself had a literally distant relationship with his own father, a globetrotting fortune-hunter who kept in touch with him as a kid via a short-wave radio in his bedroom.

The old man’s legacy arrives, in crates: six smelly, rambunctious, destructive penguins. Popper is desperate to get rid of them, until his kids come over to visit & fall in love with them, & Popper sees that the birds can help him heal the rift with his family…

You get the idea. Popper gives the penguins names like Stinky, Loudy and Bitey (in the book, they were named for famous explorers), & wackiness & warm-hearted family bonding ensue. Even if this kids-movie template weren’t numbingly over-familiar, & even if, in real life, keeping penguins as permanent residents in a luxury high-rise apartment weren’t a horribly unwise & cruel idea, Mr. Popper’s Penguins curiously doubles down on lousy, ill-advised plot devices, like making a zookeeper (Clark Gregg) the calculating bad guy.

That said, it’s a rather agreeable movie. The 8-year-old who joined me for the screening found the antics of the penguins, a mixture of real & computer-generated birds, to be sophisticated high comedy, & I must say that I thought Carrey was in good form here—he’s poised & elegantly costumed, & keeps the manic stuff a bit more restrained than usual, to his & the movie’s benefit. I also liked the black & white animated end titles, in which penguins cavort to “Ice Ice Baby.”

The company includes such vets as Angela Lansbury, Jeffery Tambor, Dominic Chianese, David Krumholtz & Philip Baker Hall, all game in perfectly superfluous roles. My own favorite member of the cast, however, was Ophelia Lovibond as Pippi, Popper’s loyal assistant who speaks alliteratively in “P” words, simply because she looks exactly like an English actress named “Ophelia Lovibond” should look.


  1. What in hell is Hollywood’s obsession with divorced dads? Is it that every screenwriter and producer is divorced? Is it some strange self-serving fiction they need to feed themselves that divorced dads are the good guys and the wives are always wrong for leaving them? Isn’t there ever a good reason that people divorce? Is Hollywood saying that divorced people can’t be happy or that the divorced dad is always a victim?

    Hello-o!! Maybe your wife left you because you’re an asshole? How about that? Show us a children’s movie that handles the idea that there’s a damn good reason mommy left daddy.

    Isn’t it a terribly bad thing to tell children of divorce how “daddy’s gonna make it better” and “I’m gonna get you kids back” and “I deserve a second chance” and the rest of that bullshit? Isn’t it a terribly bad thing to tell children whose parents are not divorced that it will always be the mother’s fault if they do? Are we going back to the old fairy tales where the mother or step-mother is always the evil one that eats the kids?

    How about portraying divorced people and their children living their lives with mutual respect, understanding that sometimes two people just can’t stay together.

    I really don’t think I want my kids watching even more of this type of plot contrivance. It furthers some bizarre, probably unconscious, male agenda about male strength and righteousness. And I am even more disturbed by Hollywood’s even greater fixation on furnishing answers and backstories and reasons and excuses and motivations for each and every fart in each and every film.

  2. Carla Gugino makes me sweat. She’s the girl next door, your best friend’s sister, the neighbor’s wife, your kid’s classmate’s mother, the beauty in your face you’re missing, the sexy right in front of you that’s hotter than all the rest and once you’ve found it you may as well shut your eyes because nothing else will ever be good enough again.

  3. Re: Divorced Dads--you're right, it is probably a subject that screenwriters, producers, etc. can draw on a lot of personal experience with. This movie doesn't suggest that the breakup was the wife's fault; the blame is squarely with Carrey, though it suggests that it was his own dad's wayfaring life that made him a distant dad himself, & it can't risk giving the mom a new boyfriend who's an asshole. But what these movies really reproach are dads who prioritize their jobs over spending time with their kids--even though I bet plenty of dads in the movie business do that. There was one some years ago called "Jack Frost" with the great Michael Keaton that particularly drove me apeshit--Keaton was a jazz saxophonist whose kid was poignantly unhappy every time he went on the road. So--what? Jazz musician shouldn't have kids? Shouldn't tour if they do? It made mme indignant on behalf of my own dad, who managed to be a great dad to five kids while a long-haul truck driver, spending a week on the road, three days home.