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.



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.

Two Brothers (2004) review-cuteness can only get you so far

Even though I adore animals in real life, I’m not really a big fan of live-action films about these creatures outside of nature documentaries.

No matter how well these movies are made, I always have a hard time getting immersed in a piece of entertainment where the main star is a trained dog or monkey who is obviously getting instructions from a trainer off camera.

I’m no hardcore animal rights activist, but that set-up became increasingly phony as I got older, which is probably why I had no desire to revisit 90s classics like Free Willy (1993), Air Bud (1997) or Fly Away Home (1996) until very recently.

For the purposes of this blog, I decided to give this genre another chance through Universal Studios’ “Animal Friends” collection, starting off with the forgettable but harmless Beethoven’s Big Break (2008).

While Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Two Brothers (2004) is better film overall, it still relies too heavily on cute animal shenanigans that simply can’t satisfy a feature-length running time.

In terms of plot, the movie revolves around Kumal and Sangha, two Indochinese tiger cubs who get separated after their father is shot and killed by a European author and treasure hunter (Guy Pearce).

While Kumal ends up performing for a local circus troupe, Sangha gets taken in by Cambodia’s French administrator after his son (Freddie Highmore) discovers the cub alone in the wild.

As these the two live out their lives separately for years, they long to escape captivity and reunite with their mother in the jungle.    

Even though I’m still not a big fan of these types of films, I still have to admit that Annaud does a pretty good job of delivering on the animal cuteness.

Not only does he capture some amazing footage of the twin tiger cubs frolicking in the Cambodian jungle, but he also gives those scenes room enough to breathe and make a sizable impression.

He accomplishes this feat by dedicating the first 12 minutes of the movie to the cubs and their parents almost exclusively, and doesn’t rely on voice-overs or any other shortcuts to communicate different story telling beats to the audience.

If this was an American feature, I have a feeling that the studio would’ve chickened out and paid Morgan Freeman to narrate this intro bit by bit, afraid that the audience would get bored without a human voice to guide them.

But Annaud is no stranger to crafting stories based on action and impressive nature photography alone, having already directed films like Quest for Fire (1981) and The Bear (1988) that are largely dialogue-free.

And these strengths shine through in the first 12 minutes of Two Brothers as well, with the Cambodian jungle and its ancient ruins providing a compelling backdrop for what’s ultimately a pretty simple story.

Unfortunately, the film kind of loses this purity once it introduces all the human characters, who aren’t interesting and don’t really add any flavor to the story.

For example, Guy Pearce is pretty lifeless as the aforementioned treasure hunter (McRory), which is too bad because it’s his job to bridge the human world and the animal world for the audience.

After gunning down the twins’ father, McRory feels bad about this turn of events and takes Kumal with him back to civilization, periodically bumping into the cub as he passes from owner to owner throughout the years.

Now, a talented actor could wring a lot nuance out of this kind of character arc, and Pearce has proven himself to be more than capable of navigating complex emotion ground throughout his career.

But for whatever reason, he absolutely sleepwalks his way through this role, with a consistently dull performance that does a poor job of outlining his character’s true feelings and motivation.

Even his accent is all over the place in this movie, waffling between an English and Australian inflection seemingly at random.

While Freddie Highmore fairs a little bit better at conveying the childlike wonder of owning a tiger cub, he’s not in the movie nearly enough to make a big impression on the audience.

As a result, basically all the emotional weight of the story rests on the tigers themselves, who don’t speak and are basically identical in terms of how they look and behave.

While this dynamic isn’t a big issue in short bursts, like the first 12 minutes of this film, the tigers’ inherent lack of relatability becomes a major problem as the movie goes on and they are asked to carry entire scenes by themselves.

One of the most glaring examples of this disconnect is when [SPOILERS] the now fully adult tiger cubs finally reunite, and Annaud (the director) must do all of the heavy lifting in this moment through his use of strategic edits and swelling music.

Admittedly, this is the same kind road block that most filmmakers encounter if they choose to produce a live-action animal epic that isn’t cushioned by celebrity voice-overs.  

Comedian W.C. Fields knew this when he famously coined the maxim “Never work with children or animals,” having personally witnessed how their unpredictable behavior can derail any film production.

And while Two Brothers never suffered any major behind-the-scenes snafus (to my knowledge), it’s over reliance on animal performers to tell the story wears thin around the one-hour mark, especially without any interesting human characters to fall back on.

Still, I think the team behind this project really had their hearts in the right place, ending the film with a rallying cry to protect these endangered Indochinese jungle cats from extinction.

That attitude comes across in the filmmaking as well, with Annaud and his team having a good eye for capturing natural landscapes and the majestic beasts who dwell within them.

But all that pleasant imagery can’t prop up a 100-minute movie, especially these days when people can get their tiger cub fix by watching three-minute clips on YouTube.



Corner store companion:

Frosted Flakes cereal (not because this movie is ggggreat, but because of … you know … tigers)

Fun facts:

-Release date: June 25, 2004

-Budget: $42 million

-Box office: $19,176,754 (US), $62,174,008 (worldwide)

-According to IMDB, around 30 different tigers were used in the shooting of this film, with most of them hailing from either France or Thailand.

-Five full-size animatronic tigers were built for this film, being reserved for any scene that might pose a real risk to an actor’s safety.

-Despite taking several safety precautions, Guy Pearce was reportedly bitten on the should by one of the tiger cubs, although this incident did not result in any serious injury.

-Outside of keeping their eye on the live tigers, the crew behind Two Brothers also had to steer clear of all the active landmines that still littered the Cambodian terrain at the time of filming.

– This film marks Freddie Highmore’s second feature film after appearing in the 1999 romantic comedy Women Talking Dirty

-If you’re looking for clips of Two Brothers on YouTube make sure you include the word “film” in the search bar, otherwise you’ll be directed to this classic bit from Rick and Morty.

Beethoven’s Big Break (2008) review- Beethoven hits the reset button

As a true blue 90s kid, I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t dipped my toe into the Beethoven cinematic universe until now (I was always more of an Air Bud fan).

Thankfully, Beethoven’s Big Break, the sixth in the series, was specifically designed for newbies like me, since it serves as a complete reboot of the franchise.

For those of you who don’t know, the Beethoven films follow the exploits of the titular St. Bernard, whose big frame and even bigger appetite constantly gets him into trouble.

While the first five Beethoven movies centered around the dog’s adventures with the fictional Newton family, this 2008 entry throws all previous continuity out the window and starts from scratch.

This time around, Beethoven is taken in by struggling animal trainer and single dad Eddie (Jonathan Silverman), who attempts to turn the canine into a movie star.

However, as Eddie tries to control Beethoven’s diva-like behavior on set, he also has to worry about 1) spending enough time with his son Billy and 2) warding off an evil animal trainer who is trying to kidnap the dog and hold him for ransom.

Now, before I nitpick this family movie like some asshole critic, let me just say that Beethoven’s Big Break is a pretty harmless affair.

At no point during the film’s runtime did I raise my eyebrows at some off-colour joke or weird moral that the writers tried to smuggle into the script. Instead, most of the movie is chock-full of broad slapstick and clear-cut messages about the importance of family, which is probably good enough for its target audience (i.e., young kids).

Unfortunately, the parents who will be forced to watch this alongside their children won’t find a lot to engage with, unless they were big fans of the original Beethoven films from back in the early 90s.

This is because the filmmakers use this movie’s status as a reboot to blatantly recycle a lot of old gags from the early films, including the famous scene where Beethoven shakes a bunch of muck all over the protagonist’s bedroom.

While this element could be written off as a J.J. Abrams style tribute, the writers also get lazy when it comes to the film’s antagonist, whose villainous scheme and bumbling henchmen are directly lifted from the 1992 original.

And let’s not even get into the tired single dad drama that permeates most of the movie, with Eddie constantly grappling with the idea of accepting a new family member after his wife’s untimely death.

The one fresh idea that Beethoven’s Big Break brings to the table is its meta-commentary.

Since a lot of the story revolves around film production many of the jokes are aimed at making fun of how notoriously difficult animals are to work with in Hollywood.

The writers are even bold enough to take some subtle jabs at the franchise’s legacy as a vehicle for using a paper-thin plot to string together a bunch of outrageous sight gags.

This mostly comes to play with the story’s love interest, who is constantly asked to re-write the in-universe movie script on a near daily basis (even though the director favours Beethoven’s spontaneous shenanigans on set anyway).

But that kind of clever genre introspection will probably fly over the heads of the movie’s target demographic, and is only interesting to hopeless adult movie geeks like myself.

At the end of the day, all you need to do to deliver the goods in a movie like this is to showcase plenty of cute animals and some cheeky slapstick, and Beethoven’s Big Break succeeds in that regard.

I just wish that the gags were more creative and the filmmakers didn’t rely on distractingly bad CGI animal doubles for some of the more elaborate set pieces.

But again, take my criticism with a grain of salt, because there’s only so much room in my jaded heart for 90s film franchises staring dogs.





Corner store companion:

Lay’s Classic potato chips (because you get what you pay for, but not much else).


Fun facts:

-Release date: Dec. 30, 2008 (straight-to-video).

-As right now, there are eight official Beethoven films, with the last entry (Beethoven’s Treasure Trail) having been released back in 2014.

-While the first two films in the franchise (Beethoven and Beethoven’s 2nd) were theatrical releases in 1992 and 1993, respectively, the rest have been straight-to-video affairs.

-On top of eight feature films, Beethoven even spawned a cartoon series in 1994-95 that lasted 26 episodes.

-Big chunks of Beethoven’s Big Break was filmed in and around Universal Studios Florida.

-Surprise cameo: Despite getting pretty sizable billing, the “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan only shows up for a few brief scenes to give some sage advice on animal training.

-The film’s end credits are littered with parody film posters that call back to classic Hollywood movies, like: Frisky Business, Raiders of the Lost Bark, Close Encounters of the Third K9, Drool Hand Luke and The Gradumutt.

-Musical highlight: “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” by Ludwig Van Beethoven (the song that inspires one of the main characters to give the lovable dog his name).