There are a lot of P’s and poops in the big-screen version of the beloved children’s book “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” but little else to combat a film emphasizing excrement over excitement.
There are a lot of P’s and poops in the big-screen version of the beloved children’s book “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” but little else to combat a film emphasizing excrement over excitement. Give director Mark Waters credit, though, for having the restraint to wait at least 10 minutes before unleashing the first defecation, delivered by none other than one of the six Gentoo penguins inherited by Jim Carrey’s Tommy Popper, a good-hearted man who has sold his soul to the New York real estate devils.
Like “The Donald,” Popper is almost maniacal about buying up Big Apple landmarks and turning them into tacky tributes to excess. His latest endeavor is to secure the recently closed Tavern on the Green – the only piece of private property in Central Park – so the famous eatery can be replaced by a towering skyscraper. The sacrilege!
Standing in his way, however, is a stubborn old woman nicely played by the great Angela Lansbury. She tells him she won’t sell to just anyone. The buyer also must be a good person with a proper love of family and solid ethics, all qualities a power-hungry divorcee like Tommy Popper lacks.
Or at least he does until his recently deceased sea-captain father leaves him the six penguins in his will. First one shows up on his doorstep, then five more, each turning Popper’s immaculate penthouse into their own private toilet. Let the poop jokes commence.
Waters, who used to make edgy films like “Mean Girls” and the Kennedy assassination satire “The House of Yes,” doesn’t waste a single opportunity to pander to the 8-and-under set by emptying loads of guano onto Carrey and just about everything else, including, appropriately enough, a toilet.
That’s about the only time, though, when the movie hits its target, as the lazy, cliché-ridden script by a trio of Hollywood hacks takes everything quaint and charming about Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1938 children’s book about a lowly house painter’s exotic pets, and converts it into garish, over-the-top schmaltz.
At least the penguins are cute, and if not for them and their adorable high jinks, the film would have been torture to endure. They also prove a manic, mugging Jim Carrey incapable of stealing a scene from them. But even they fall victim to a script as flightless as Carrey’s Chaplin-loving birds.
It’s like the thing was written with the assistance of a computer-programmed check list that includes such staples as the self-absorbed executive with no time for his two kids; the still-loving, but flabbergasted ex-wife (a wasted Carla Gugino); and the ruthless quest for a promotion that tests the hero’s moral code.
Each tattered relationship resolves itself exactly as you’d expect, as Carrey and the movie go through the motions without providing one element – outside the penguins – that distinguishes it from a thousand other cheesy family films built for profit instead of entertainment.
It’s a flaw that underscores how cynical and disingenuous “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is in its moral about there being more to life than power and money. It also irresponsibly plants the idea in people’s heads that penguins would make great house pets, assuming of course you’re willing to turn the thermostat down to 20 degrees and cover your floors and furniture in snow, as Popper does.
If only his indoor winter wonderland weren’t such a blunderland of missed opportunities, like failing to take better advantage of both the penguins and a superb turn by the little known Ophelia Lovibond as Popper’s perky personal assistant, Pippi, a woman with a limitless gift for limiting her vocabulary to words that begin with P.
Unfortunately, Waters shares her love of P’s, inundating kids and their sure-to-be-bored parents with penguin poop, preposterous predicaments and a pandering, purloined plot in which a prosy protagonist provokes paltry, puerile pap. It may not be putrid, but it sure is prosaic.
Reach Al Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS (PG for mild rude humor and some language.) Cast includes Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino and Angela Lansbury. Directed by Mark Waters. 2 stars out of 4.