For the past few years, every time I’ve gone to see a kids movie in the theater, I always take a moment to feel sorry for the parents in the theater.  These days, taking a family of 4 to the theater can cost anywhere between $50 and $75 (Closer to $100, if you’re seeing something in IMAX or 3-D)!  But then, to add insult to injury, more often than not they’ve got to sit through dreck like Alvin and the Chipmunks, or Marmaduke.  Thankfully, there are a handful of movies out that are not only geared towards the satisfaction of children, but the whole family, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, starring Jim Carrey is one of them.  Check out the rest of the review after the jump…

The Players:

  • Director – Mark Waters
  • Writers – Sean Anders, John Morris, Jared Stern
  • Starring – Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Ophelia Lovibond, Clark Gregg, Angela Lansbury, David Krumholtz, Jeffrey Tambor

The Story:

Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) is a real estate developer whose career is more successful than his family life.  He is struggling to balance his goals of becoming a partner at his prestigious firm against staying relevant to his young son and preteen daughter.  But when his world-explorer, absentee father dies, Popper inherits not one, but six live penguins that he must now care for.  Though the birds initially turn his routine and tidy life upside down, they also provide him with a new opportunity to connect with his kids and ex-wife (Gugino).  In order to take advantage of this second chance, Popper must keep the penguins in his penthouse apartment, hidden from his nosy neighbor (Krumholtz) and out of the hands of a zoo keeper with ulterior motives (Gregg).  As the animals bring his family closer together, Popper is able to become the emotionally available father to his family that he never had himself.

The Good:

  • Family Comedy vs. Children’s Comedy – It’s a daunting task to write a film that’s able to connect with both children and adults.  It certainly doesn’t help that each year Pixar continues to set the bar so high, with the kind of universal storytelling that resonates with literally everyone.  Most family movies write off the adults in the audience, and appeal solely to children with base humor and plot lines written in crayon.  That said, Mr. Popper’s Penguins does a fine job of riding the line between the two styles.  The film is very character driven, and doesn’t rely on the kind of stylized humor that continues to drive, say, the Shrek series into the ground.
  • Jim Carrey – Carrey’s performance is charming enough to keep adults engaged with his character, and though his trademark cartoonish energy is present, it isn’t a distraction from the story at hand.  The humor surrounding the penguins is mostly geared towards children (one of the penguins’ distinguishing characteristics is that he keeps bumping into walls, while another one farts incessantly), however, they’re such naturally amusing creatures that whether or not they’re real or seamlessly animated, one can’t help but enjoy their presence.
  • Supporting Cast – First of all, there’s Ophelia Lovibond, who plays Popper’s alliterating assistant, Pippi.  This girl is absolutely adorable, and her energy and appeal carry every scene she’s in. Here’s hoping this ingenue never longs for work, because I just want to see more of her smiling on screen.  But more importantly, Popper’s cast is bolstered with some great and timeless character actors who really understand their function in a film, and play not to their own strengths, but to the story’s.  Angela Lansbury, with her matronly voice and manner, is a welcome presence in any family movie, and it’s nice to see her introduced to yet another generation of children.  Clark Gregg’s performance is only a teensy bit more overstated than usual, but hey, he’s the bad guy in a kid’s film.  It’s still a pleasure to see his polite sincerity in any film. Jeffrey Tambor and David Krumholtz fill in a few scenes.  Philip Baker Hall also has a small role as Popper’s boss, and although he is probably the most under-utilized actor in the film, he’s one of those performers whose face you just like look at on camera.

The Bad:

  • What book? – Based on the beloved 1938 children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mr. Popper’s Penguins has very little in common with its source material.  Now, it’s quite understandable that this story would need to be updated for modern times and audiences, especially since one of the key elements of the book is that many people don’t even know what penguins are.  However there’s a simplicity to its antiquated setting that has been a substantial part of its charm for some time now.  The plot is different as well, choosing to bring the penguins closer to the family, rather than exposing them to the world.  And part of the magic of the book is the fantastic notion of a troupe of traveling performing penguins.  But most distinctly, all of the themes have changed as well.  Rather than being a story about a man who realizes the dreams he has shelved for the sake of his family, this is a film about a man who puts puts his personal goals aside to be closer to them.  It’s not an offensive departure, it’s just that if you’re looking for a nostalgic connection to your third grade summer reading list, this isn’t it.

Overall:

Although Mr. Popper’s Penguins may not provide the emotional catharsis of a Pixar film, its strong cast does a very good job of keeping it an emotionally grounded film, and strengthening its ability to connect with audiences of all ages in broad, and meaningful ways.

Rating: 7/10

Mr. Popper’s Penguins in theaters June 17th!

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