Mr. Popper's Penguins

Mark Thomas Lickona
5 July 2011
Reproduced with Permission

In Night at the Museum, Ben Stiller plays a divorced dad who's lost touch with his kid but reconnects with him through a strange (one might even say miraculous) series of events that makes him the caretaker of a thousand and one living museum-exhibits.

In Mr. Popper's Penguins, Jim Carrey plays a divorced dad who's lost touch with his kids but reconnects with them through a strange (one might even say hard-to-believe) series of events that makes him the caretaker of six precocious penguins. But the penguins are not the only difference between Mr. Popper's Penguins and its family-fantastical predecessor: in MPP, not only does Dad win back the kids, he gets the girl. Meaning his ex-wife. Making Mr. Popper's Penguins the most ambitious divorced-kid (and divorced-dad) fantasy to ever hit the big screen.

There's two ways to look at a film like this: to tsk-tsk it for straining credulity or write it a big fat pass for having its heart in the right place. With apologies to little Maximilian Kolbe, I choose both.

Jim Carrey (who actually replaced Ben Stiller in the casting of this film) plays Tom Popper, the son of Thomas Popper, Sr. Tom Sr. was an eternally-hopeful and hardly-ever-present world-explorer who for most of Tom's childhood was only a voice coming in over the shortwave from some far-flung corner of the world - "Bald Eagle" calling in to "Tippytoe" to tell his son the thrilling/disappointing news that he was back on the trail of El Dorado/the Fountain of Youth/(insert life/world-changing-discovery here). CUT TO Peter Pan all grown up and cynical, now pirating his father's romanticism to get people to buy what he's selling - for example, the freedom to chase that long-postponed dream of sailing round the world and all you have to do is sell a lifetime's worth of capital to the acquisition firm of Franklin, Reader and Yates - a pantheon of mammon to which Tom aspires to be elevated.

Then from the almost-but-not-quite-forgotten past comes the news from the executor of his fathers' estate, such as it is, that his father has died somewhere in the Antarctic. Shortly after that Tom's inheritance arrives at the door of his swank hi-rise apartment in Manhattan. In refrigerated crates. Soon his entire apartment will become a refrigerated penguin paradise. And his life-turned-upside-down will make for a heart three sizes bigger - room enough for his wide-eyed-but-disappointed-just-like-him son, his harder-to-relate-to teenage daughter and his ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino, Night at the Museum) who seems like she never fell that far out of love with Tom (despite all contrary appearances at the outset).

The 1938 children's book Mr. Popper's Penguins was a simple tale of a penguin that comes into a working class family's life, after which chaos ensues (by way of a mate, ten little baby penguins, and a brief foray into show business.) One can only surmise how the story became something so much more emotionally sophisticated. Maybe it has something to do with the death of childhood - meaning that only such emotional sophistication would be considered (perhaps by both audiences and the filmmakers) emotionally relevant. For a movie called Mr. Popper's Penguins, the penguins don't really have much to do with it. There aren't even that many penguin hijinks here. Most of the humor here is of the smile-through-your-tears/life-sucks sort. Actually, the most frequently-appearing penguin gag is Popper keeping his penguins under control by putting them in front of a TV and looping Charlie Chaplin movies stored on his DVR. You know, because of Chaplin's trademark waddle. Not funny, really; more like cute in a nostalgic sort of way. In short, this is a movie for grown-ups. Make that grown-up divorced kids. Some of whom may sadly also be divorced dads by now (two audiences with one stone?). Kids whose fondest wish is that Dad and Mom would get back together again - and whose fondest memory is every memory in which they still were.

So… despite the credulity-straining narrative rush-jobs that abound in MPP, and all the dots that therefore don't quite get connected (why does mostly-but-not-entirely-absent-and-still-adoring Tom Sr. cause Tom Jr. to become a thoughtless and uncaring husband and father? And if he had been a jerk to his wife before, would changing his life into Penguinpalooza to keep the kids happy really have her falling back into his arms almost from the first?)... this film still gets a thumbs-up from me. Because this is a fantasy, people. It's no time to get all cyni-critical. Even, or perhaps especially, if you're a child of divorce.

Mark Thomas Lickona is a screenwriter, critic, filmmaker and small-scale organic farmer residing in Los Angeles.