Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011) review- when being nice isn’t enough

I found out way too late in life that it’s almost never a compliment when someone uses the word “nice” to describe your personality.

While our society could always use more kindness, people often deploy “nice” as a polite synonym for “bland” or “inoffensive,” which is not the kind of reputation that endears you to potential friends or employers.

Despite being on the receiving end of this descriptor for part of my youth, I’m hoping to exact some measure of revenge today by slapping the label on Mark Waters’ Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011).

Because even though this film is a perfectly serviceable family comedy, there’s nothing really remarkable about the production that jumps out and demands your attention.   

Ironically, the last Mark Waters film I looked at for this blog, Head Over Heels (2001), had the opposite problem, since that rom-com is such a creative train wreck that you simply can’t look away.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins, on the other hand, seems like it’s on autopilot for most of its 94-minute runtime, relying on cute CGI animals and Jim Carrey’s trademark physical comedy to carry a fairly thin premise.

But just like those poor souls who are labelled “nice” in real life, this film does have admirable qualities that occasionally bubble to the surface, even if it’s all undermined by a monotonous quality that sucks all the oxygen out of the room. 

The plot of Mr. Popper’s Penguins revolves around Carrey’s titular real estate shark, who is living the good life in New York City when he suddenly receives a shipment of six gentoo penguins from his recently deceased father.

At first, Popper wants nothing to do with this waddle of Antarctic birds and bends over backwards to get them removed from his high-rise apartment.  

But over time, Popper develops a close bond with these animals, especially after their shenanigans help him reconcile with his divorced wife and kids.

The only thing that threatens this dynamic is antagonistic zookeeper, whose “evil” scheme involves [checks notes] taking the penguins into protective captivity where they can be properly cared for.

As you can probably tell by this recap, Waters and his screenwriters weren’t too concerned with crafting a subversive or ground-breaking story, which is probably the right call for a film that is intended for young children.

And to be fair, this stark simplicity imbues the film with a kind of earnest charm that is hard to deny.

Sure, the physical comedy on display here is pretty low brow — with no shortage of poop, fart, and nut-shot jokes — but it’s the kind of innocent fun you can get by watching “cute animal” compilations on YouTube.

Unfortunately, the titular penguins in this feature-length film fail to capture that same “awww” factor you can spot casually scrolling through Instagram, and it’s not because these birds look like horrifying demons in real life.

The big problem here is that the six main penguins are completely devoid of personality outside of the one shallow character trait that doubles as their name (Captain, Loudy, Bitey, Stinky, Lovey, and Nimrod).

And without the God-like presence of Morgan Freeman to narrate their inner thoughts and feelings, these birds are completely interchangeable throughout the film’s runtime, even during the more serious scenes where they are put in mortal peril.

This seriously makes me wonder why the movie, which was adapted from a 1938 children’s book of the same name, wasn’t given the full animated treatment.

That approach would have allowed the filmmakers to properly anthropomorphize these penguins for its intended family audience, similar to the winning formula that made properties like Happy Feet and Madagascar so popular around the same time.

But since this story is firmly set in the world of live action, most of the emotional beats are buttressed by Carrey and the rest of the human cast, which includes the likes of Carla Gugino as his divorced wife.

And to be fair, these actors have a lot of natural chemistry and do at least sell you on the idea that they are a dysfunctional family who are reconciling under zany circumstances.

Carrey is also surprisingly dedicated to what could have easily been a throwaway role, where he shows up, does the bare minimum amount of work, and collects a paycheck.

Instead, the famous comedian actually manages to wring some pathos out of this admittedly bare-bones script, including a touching sequence where he desperately tries and inevitably fails to save one of his penguin’s eggs.

Unfortunately, those genuine human moments are few and far between, with the movie mostly giving way to prat-fall comedy involving the penguins, like the scene where they wreak havoc at New York’s famous Guggenheim Museum.

While there’s nothing wrong with including these types of fluffy sequences in this breed of family film, they feel particularly superfluous here since there’s not a strong plot to string it all together.

Sure, the filmmakers attempt to add some meat on the bone by including a subplot about Carrey trying to convince a local restaurateur (played by Angela Lansbury) to sell her family business.

But the bulk of the runtime is still dedicated to these penguins causing property damage or dancing to Vanilla Ice music, which seems better suited for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial rather than a feature-length film.

It also doesn’t help that a lot of the film’s written jokes fall flat, with a couple recurring gags that border on excruciating.

The worst example of this is Carrey’s assistant (Ophelia Lovibond), whose vocabulary mostly consists of “P” words that she repeats in an alliterative frenzy.

Like the rest of the movie’s comedy, this gag would have been tolerable in small doses, but it gets old really quickly after an hour.  

With all that being said, I find it difficult to get genuinely worked up about Mr. Popper’s Penguins and the boilerplate filmmaking that is its defining feature.

Even though Waters and his crew don’t bring anything special to the table in terms of how this movie is shot, scored, or edited, it still possesses an innocent charm that is hard to deny.

And if you’re a parent looking to distract your young kids with some dumb bullshit for an afternoon this holiday season, you could certainly do a lot worse.

I know this may sound like I’m valuing Mr. Popper’s Penguins’ status as a “nice” film above all else and that’s partially true.

But given that this film became a punching bag for its admittedly dumb premise, being on the receiving end of some vicious lampooning from the writers of South Park, I thought some charitable words wouldn’t be the end of the world.

It is Christmas after all.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Oreo Mini snack packs (because they’re a good way to entertain the kids for an afternoon, but nothing more)

Fun facts:

-Release date: July 17, 2011

– Budget: $55 million

– Box office: $68,224,452 (Canada/US), $187,361,754 (worldwide)

-Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story, The Squid and the Whale) was originally slated to direct Mr. Popper’s Penguins, with actors Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, Rickey Gervais, Adam Sandler, Matthew Broderick, and Jack Black being considered for the title role.

-The end credits for Mr. Popper’s Penguins provide a cute little twist on the standard “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer that you see in many motion pictures. In this case, the disclaimer reads: “No penguins were harmed in the making of this film. Jim Carrey, on the other hand, was bitten mercilessly. But he had it coming.”

-In order to keep his new featherless friends occupied during the day, Mr. Popper shows them a series of Charlie Chaplin films, including: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928).

-A stage version of Mr. Popper’s Penguins was produced and performed in the late 2010s, although this musical is based on the original 1938 children’s novel as opposed to the 2011 feature film.

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