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.

Head Over Heels (2001) review-who thought this was a good idea?

One of my favourite aspects of writing for this blog is it gives me an opportunity to go into a movie blind, where I haven’t watched any trailers or read a lengthy plot synopsis before pressing “play.”

This represents a nice alternative to our modern media landscape, where you’re inundated with clips and previews for every major upcoming release that leaves very little room for surprises once you enter the theatre.

By contrast, the randomized selection process that is a self-imposed signature of Corner Store Cinema™ has led me to discover some real hidden gems that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise, like the sublime slice-of-life dramedy Moscow on the Hudson (1984).

Other times I’ve been bamboozled by a truly bizarre creation like If Lucy Fell … (1996), which is so bad that I thought the filmmakers were playing an elaborate prank on the audience.

Mark Waters’ Head Over Heels (2001) definitely falls into the latter category, since it switches genres so often that it borders on being an experimental art film or a scathing satire of shallow American movie making.

But if you take a step back and look at this film from a distance, it becomes pretty obvious that Waters and his team of writers were just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick, without taking things like logic, consistency, or taste into account.

And while this approach caught me completely off guard and resulted in a memorable viewing experience, I’m under no illusion that Head Over Heels is anything more than a carnival freak show dressed up as a standard romantic comedy.

As you might have gleaned from the trailer, this film kicks off like alot of chick flicks from that era, where hard-working city gal Amanda (Monica Potter) falls for a good-looking fashion executive Jim (Freddie Prinze Jr.) despite their differences in lifestyle.

In order to capture Jim’s affection, Amanda enlists the help of her four roommates, who are all runway models and know a thing or two about attracting the opposite sex.

However, the plot takes a major turn when Amanda thinks she witnesses Jim commit a cold-blooded murder, and vows to get to the bottom of this mystery with her model roommates in tow.

It’s hard to describe in words how jarring this story pivot is, since the first 30 minutes of this movie contain nothing that foreshadows this sudden transition from Sex in the City-flavoured kookiness to Rear Window-style horror.

In fact, up until that half-hour mark, it seemed like the filmmakers were actively running through a checklist of rom-com clichés that were worn-out even by early 2000s standards.

Most of these tired tropes revolves around the main character played by Potter, who:

– uses a voiceover to highlight her romantic woes to the audience.

– has a gay best friend who only exists to be a sympathetic sounding board.   

– holds down a job that is professionally fulfilling but socially isolating.

– is conventionally very attractive even though the screenwriters pretend like she is plain.

– possesses superhuman clumsiness that is constantly used for cheap physical comedy.

It also doesn’t help that the movie’s initial set-up, where the main character moves in with four high-fashion models, seems like a failed sit-com pilot that got smuggled into a feature film.

Outside of the stagy set decor, with a bright, open-concept apartment that’s right at home with ABC’s TGIF programming block, many of the jokes feel like they were written with a live studio audience in mind.

But without the presence of any canned laughter, there’s nothing to distract from the reality that a lot of these gags are lazy and being delivered by paper-thin characters.

One of the roommates played by real-life model Sarah Murdoch is probably the most obvious example of this pedestrian writing style, since she introduces herself to the main character by talking about her pet dingo, as if her thick Australian accent wasn’t a big enough clue to her nationality.

With that set-up in mind, the movie’s transition into a murder mystery after 30 minutes is a hard pill to swallow, since the filmmakers hardly deviate from the cookie-cutter cinematic style that has already been established.

This problem is further compounded in the final third of the movie when the plot turns into a spy thriller of sorts, which just left me feeling discombobulated.

Now, one may argue that Waters is using this structure to be intentionally subversive, especially his follow-up projects Freaky Friday (2003) and Mean Girls (2004) were all about deconstructing well-established film archetypes.

But while those movies tried to mine their shallow premises for a deeper meaning, Head Over Heels doesn’t have much on its mind beyond an overriding scorn and hatred for the fashion industry.

Plus, producer Robert Simonds outright stated in a behind-the-scenes featurette that his intention was to make more of a “throwback” romantic comedy, so any theories about Head Over Heels being a stealth critique of the genre can be thrown right out the window.

Because of this, all you’re left with is the movie’s cavalcade of dumb jokes and visual gags, which constantly flip flop between being family-friendly and adult-oriented.

One minute the characters are taking part in a cutesy make-over montage that is straight of a Disney Channel original TV show. The next they’re secretly ogling Freddie Prinze Jr. with binoculars, wondering out loud whether or not he’s had sex with the underage school girls who recently visited his apartment.

And if that tonal whiplash isn’t bad enough, the writing also suffers from an over-reliance on Three Stooges-esque physical comedy, something that is randomly deployed every time the filmmakers don’t know how to make a scene interesting.

With that being said, there are a few key moments where the filmmakers hit a home run in the comedy department, with some gross-out gags that completely blindsided me in a good way.

One of these scenes involves Freddie Prinze Jr. loudly pooping out some perogies in his bathroom as some of the investigating models hide in a nearby shower stall.

Later on in the movie, these same characters get covered in shit after they are caught in a public bathroom plumbing accident.

While the main appeal of these gags is the pure spectacle of watching pretty actors willingly subjecting themselves to such low-brow toilet humour, the film’s editor still nails the timing and does a great job of making these jokes land.

Unfortunately, these few genuinely funny moments (alongside some charming performances from members of the cast) can’t make up for the rest of Head Over Heels , which is a complete mess in terms of its writing and structure.

Even though part of me wants to admire Waters’ attempt at combining a rom com, a murder mystery, and a spy thriller into one 86-minute movie, the reality is that these disparate elements mix about as well as oil and water.

But even if this film is not destined for a Criterion Collection release, it still remains a fascinating cultural artifact that should be poked and prodded at, like some kind of grotesque laboratory specimen.  

While genre mash-ups are interesting and can be done well, the crew behind Head Over Heels approach this concept with all the skill and subtlety of a drunk lumberjack performing open heart surgery.  

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

Planters Zen Blenz (because it contains a bunch of stuff that doesn’t belong together)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Feb. 2, 2001

-Budget: $14 million (estimated)

-Box office: $10,424,470 (gross in US and Canada), $13,127,022 (total gross including worldwide markets)

-There are at least three other feature films with the title “Head Over Heels,” according to IMDB. This includes a 1922 silent comedy, a 1937 British musical and a 1979 romantic comedy. A pair of short-lived comedy TV series from Britain and the United States, airing in 1993 and 1997 respectively, also bear the name “Head Over Heels.”

-The lead role of Head of Over Heels was originally supposed to go to Claire Danes, who dropped out of this project at the last minute.

Surprise cameo: Timothy Olyphant briefly shows up to play Amanda’s cheating ex-boyfriend, whose infidelity sets the whole plot in motion.

Musical highlight: “Head Over Heels” by The Go-Go’s (plays over a montage of the main characters stalking Freddy Prinze Jr. to see if he is really a serial killer)