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Mr. Popper’s Penguins

by on June 17, 2011
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“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is critic-proof. That’s not to say it is flawless. It simply puts critics like me in a sticky situation.

If I wax philosophic about the history and value of animal comedies like this one, or if I pan the film, I will come across as a pretentious snob. And if I appreciate the movie for its warm, fuzzy sentiments, I will seem like a softhearted wimp.

Lastly, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is difficult to analyze — or resist — because there is simply something inherently entertaining about a man inheriting six Gentoo penguins (the predicament of Jim Carrey’s character).

Thankfully, there is a little more to the film than meets the eye. Beneath its cutesy surface lies a poignant parable for parenting. (Get used to the P-word alliteration; there is a lot of it in the film.) What the film lacks in imagination, it makes up for with heart.

The film begins with Tom Popper as a child, awaiting his father who is an explorer of sorts. Cut to 30 years later. Popper (Carrey) is a slick, fast-talking real estate investor (far from the poor house painter in the children’s book upon which the film is based). When Popper’s long-lost father dies, he leaves him with … you guessed it…six penguins.

Popper is desperate to get rid of the penguins … that is, until his children fall in love with them. Then, he transforms his swanky New York apartment into a slippery winter wonderland. So, Popper is a reflection of Carrey in the sense that he is forced into juvenile behavior for the sake of a child audience.

This brings me to the real joy of the film — watching Popper relive the magic of parenting as he cares for the penguins. A particularly heartfelt scene finds him kneeling over a penguin egg, anxiously waiting for it to hatch — as anxious as he probably was before his children were born.

Scenes like this are touching, and Carrey’s acting is tender. But the central concept of the film is so quirky, it’s a shame that director Mark Waters (“The House of Yes,” “Mean Girls”) and the screenwriters (Sean Anders, John Morris and Jared Stern) didn’t have more fun with it. Instead of tame, family-friendly humor, I wanted a film thick with the atmosphere of a madcap B-movie. The closest the film comes to that is a sequence during which the penguins slide down the circular ramp of the Guggenheim Museum.

Oddly enough, Waters and the screenwriters choose not to stray too far from reality. Much of their attention is paid to creating plausible justifications for the story’s wacky scenarios. Since when did filmmakers become such anti-escapists? Since “The Dark Knight” grounded Batman in gritty reality — and garnered critical acclaim for doing so? Even Carrey tones down his cartoonish style in the film.

Although I wish the film had loosened up a little bit, I still enjoyed it. If I were seven years old — or the parent of a child that age — I would have enjoyed it even more.

There, I wrote a review of the film. I guess it’s not critic-proof after all. So, did I come across as a pretentious snob or a softhearted wimp? You be the judge. See, it’s not as easy as it looks, right? Right?