[16 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s the last desperate act of a former funny man. When audiences no longer line up to see you jest and joke around, you turn tail and go child. Eddie Murphy did it, drowning his career sorrows in the dreck of numerous Dr. Daddy Dolittle Day Care disasters. So have the likes of Tim Allen (The Santa Clauses) and Ray Romano (the Ice Age franchise). We can now add Jim Carrey to this sad Who’s Who. After a ‘90s dominated by such hits as Dumb and Dumber, Liar, Liar, and Bruce Almighty, his “wow” factor has weakened, even with excellent work in such quality films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Love You, Phillip Morris. So it’s time to turn to the tykes, and what better way to win them over than with an adaptation of a beloved children’s book - Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
Don’t be fooled, however. This is not your Richard & Florence Atwater favorite, first published in 1938. No, this is a “modern take” on the tale, complete with every family film cliche in the hokey Hollywood standard. Popper (Carrey) is now a Type-A personality jerk still smarting from lingering abandonment issues. As a kid, his explorer father was never home, though he did regale his son with intriguing stories from his travels abroad. No matter, Popper is now a real estate ace and is trying to score the fabled NYC landmark Tavern on the Green from its elderly, cynical owner (Angela Landsbury). He also has a concerned ex-wife (Carla Gugino), a couple of precocious, Central Casting kids - the bouncy Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) and the boy troubled teen Janie (Madeline Carroll) - and a nosy neighbor (David Krumhotz) always ready to bust Popper’s chops.
When his mythic daddy dies, our hero is handed a large crate containing a penguin. A call to the delivery company results in yet another five of these flightless birds arriving at his ritzy Manhattan digs. Initially, Popper wants nothing to do with these pests - especially with their various annoying animalistic (biting, screaming, pooping) tendencies. After contacting the local zoo and its Penguin Specialist (Clark Gregg), Popper sees an out. But then his kids discover the creatures and fall instantly in love. Now, Popper must balance the needs of his previously non-existent family, the complaints of neighbors, the requirement for an icy environment, and the constant chaos created by the penguins, all while landing that all important business deal. It goes without saying that nothing goes off as planned.
Like a punch in the gut after someone has slapped you in the face, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is an affront to family entertainment. No, it’s not nasty or inappropriate, nor does it fail to provide the necessary pabulum puke pandering the contemporary take on the genre mandates. In fact, the entire film is a lesson in how to reconfigure a classic into crap. If you want to know what the real Mr. Popper’s Penguins was all about, wander over to Wikipedia and read the book synopsis. Sounds nothing like this crude, contemptuous by committee creation, does it? That’s because Depression era strife and harsh familial struggles are not conducive to making the post-millennial brat happy. No, what apparently makes the 2011 version of mankind’s future giggle uncontrollably is bird feces, and lots of it.
That’s right - Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a movie that celebrates fowl/foul defecation in all its runny white glory. Carrey’s character is introduced to a bird he later labels “Stinky” when the animal drops a healthy load on his shoes, and then face. Eventually, the odiferous avian is farting like a Teamster after Taco Bell. It’s a running gag - emphasis on that last bit - throughout the film, eventually carrying over to the rest of the brood when Popper discovers how to ‘toilet train’ the beasts. Apparently, it involves holding a penguin over the commode and squeezing it like a tube of turd-filled toothpaste…over and over again. As the under-eight crowd snickers in scatological delight, the rest of the audience will actually discover their IQ dropping by several scat-laced points.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins is all about the lowest of the lowest common denominators. When in doubt, it runs to animal gas or inherent cuteness as an entertainment placeholder. Director Mark Waters, whose excelled at underachieving mediocrity (Head Over Heels, Just Like Heaven, Ghost of Girlfriends Past), reaches a new low here. You can almost see the gears grinding away behind this mechanical mess, the various individuals with input on this project proffering their own mandatory movie bits (“Where’s the villain?” “Can we get the parents back together?” “How about a last act change of heart?”). The end result is a hodgepodge of hackneyed ideas. Nothing is original with every beat known well in advance of its arrival.
For his part, Carrey looks tired and bored, his once elastic face now forcing the farce through a mug riddled with wrinkles and sagging jowls. He is harried, and not just from getting shit on every few minutes. You can read the angst over his future film viability in every arch move, the “I hope this plays in Peoria” sense of all or nothing acknowledgment. In fact, Carrey seems to be making a subtle, subliminal bet with the more tuned in members of the audience, suggesting that, if we go along for this particularly putrid ride, he’ll go back and do something substantially better ASAP. It’s hidden behind his otherwise exasperated glare, glimpsed in sequences where he faces off against Landsbury and/or Gugino. Then the CG birds show up to act cloying and cutesy and the movie’s real motives take over.
At some point, the FDA or other government watchdog agency will step in and put a stop to these horrific kid vid violations once and for all. Surely they are derogatory and/or detrimental to the growth and aesthetic appreciate of future filmgoers. Or maybe Hollywood likes it that way. Maybe if you can catch the kiddies early and teach them that movies are nothing more than god-awful grab bags of stereotypes and bodily functions - human or otherwise - they’ll stop demanding anything more and settle for this and any other slop offered. Previous box office returns have proven this theory valid. Sadly, something like Mr. Popper’s Penguins argues for its sour success as well.