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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

 Mr. Popper’s Penguins (Two Stars)

U.S.: Mark Waters, 2011

Well anyway, it’s not the penguins’ fault.

Six of them — six handsome, lively and seemingly fearless emperor penguins — have been cast in the title roles of the new Jim Carrey movie, Mr. Popper’s Penguins. There, they share a refrigerated sound stage with the rubbery-faced, rubbery-limbed, comic dynamo Carrey (as Mr. Popper), and with the very attractive and unflappable Carla Gugino (as Popper’s ex-wife Amanda) and, albeit on different stages, with that Grande Dame of Wit and Whimsy, Angela Lansbury, as Mrs. Van Gundy, about whom later.

Mr. Popper’s Penguinsseems at first like a good bet for a good movie family comedy. It’s based on a famous children‘s book, created toward the end of the last Depression, by a fascinating husband-and-wife writing team, Richard and Florence Atwater. (About whom more later.) A tale of a lovable family and 12 lovable penguins. It’s a book so beloved and so consistently enjoyed by its mostly young audience that it’s never been out of print since its first publication in 1938.

As for the sextet of penguins hired to help make a show of this kid’s classic, they do everything you could ask a penguin to do for a Hollywood movie, and still keep shreds of their penguin dignity — including sliding on their bellies down the circular ramp of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, during a crowded party-gala, with Mrs. Van Gundy looking perturbed, and with a frantic Popper racing to stop them.

It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Despite Carrey, despite Lansbury, despite that blue-ribbon Newberry Award winning material, despite the shiniest production values of the week’s big new releases (this is a much better looking film than the very expensive Green Lantern), despite that whole cast (which also includes Clark Gregg, Philip Baker Hall, Jeffrey Tambor, and Dominic Chianese), and despite those great, game little penguins, Mr. Popper is still pretty much a glossy botch.

In this case, I’m afraid, the culprits may be the usual suspects these days: the writers, namely, Sean Enders & John Morris (of Sex Drive) and Jared Stern (with the more plausible credit of The Princess and the Frog). One might also single out for blame director Mark Waters (of Mean Girls, Ghosts of Girlfriends and Freaky Friday), because he keeps the movie so cold and slick, instead of warm and funny, when it’s obvious that this movie needs an unabashed, all-out, shameless lovability, a quality that eludes everybody here, except at times the penguins. But truth to tell, this script doesn’t seem fixable, except by Leo McCarey and the Marx Brothers. (Leo McCarey: Now that’s a guy who could have directed this movie, even with this script. Which he would have thrown away.)

The book is reportedly about a lovable but poor small town housepainter named Tommy Potter who is fascinated with world explorations, and whose correspondence with a Byrd-like admiral in Antarctica results in the gift to Tommy and his family of a penguin. Soon that penguin is joined by a female from a nearby zoo, then eventually ten baby penguins. All the while, all kinds of amusing penguin antics and domestic difficulties ensue.

Sounds cute. It’s the kind of story that could work. You can imagine Charlie Chaplin, in one of his great two-reelers, palling around with a lot of penguins and getting lots of laughs. (I mention Charlie because one of the movie’s running gags is that Popper’s penguins love to catch Chaplin comedies on TV.)

But, as mentioned, warmth, a prime ingredient of the book, is almost totally absent in the picture, though people keep trying to flag it down. In the movie that Waters and his writers have come up with, Tommy Potter (Carrey) is reconceived and played as an obnoxious, selfish, fairly rich but initially unlovable, wildly mugging corporate trouble-shooter, living in a pricey high-rise Manhattan apartment building, and (deservedly) separated from his wife Amanda (Gugino) and his kids Janie and Billy (Madeline Carroll of Flipped, and Maxwell Perry Cotton).

Instead of getting the penguins from an admiral, Popper is willed the six by his late explorer father (who, as we see in a prelude, was mostly absent during Tommy’s boyhood). And Tommy decides to keep and care for his dad’s gift — mostly without paid help, except one housekeeper who skedaddles, in a building that has a “no-pets“ rule — after Billy mistakes the penguins for his birthday present.

What next? Tommy, who has been portrayed as growing up into something of a jerk, refrigerates his apartment, bribes the doorman and, I guess, tries to fool everybody in the building. An alternative — say, getting another place, like a loft with a refrigerated locker — never seems to occur to him. Or anybody else.

Not content with those odd decisions, the writers have added Popper’s job problems to their familiar movie brew: The prize huckster of his corporation, Popper is given the assignment of talking imperious but sweet old Mrs. Van Gundy (Lansbury, trapped in drivel) into selling to his exploitive company the storied Tavern on the Green restaurant in Central Park, which they intend to tear down.

 Of course, there’s romance too. And not just among the penguins. Mr. P. is also bent on winning back his gorgeous wife Amanda (Gugino), and his adorable kids. So, as the writers loot and paw every gimmick they can find out of the modern rom-com kit, all kinds of would-be amusing penguin scenes supposedly ensue, including penguin-poop gags and sneak-the-penguins-in-and-out gags, all loonily improbable and none very amusing. Whenever all else fails, the penguins, led by a leader called Captain, slide on their bellies somewhere.

 Carrey has the key part here, and I’d have to say he was cheated. I’d much rather see him as a lovable small town dad, trying to cope with even double the number of penguins, than see him ensnared in these ridiculous Manhattan high-life high jinks. Carrey is a comedian who rarely puts the brakes on, but this movie would obviously work better if it were done more as the Atwaters wrote it.

 A digression: the story about the Atwaters I hinted at. Richard Atwater, an ex-Chicago academic, wrote the book, couldn’t sell it and suffered a coronary which left him speechless and unable to write. His wife and ex-student Florence then rewrote parts of the book, sold it, and saw it reap fantastic success.

 That’s a touching yarn. I’m sure the book that came from it had heart, which the movie definitely doesn’t, not even in the last scene between Carrey and Lansbury, programmed for sniffles and scored for heartstring-plucking. Carrey is a master of bodily contortions; he even does his great slow-mo routine again here. But, though that suppleness and rubberiness helps Carrey do good movie urban creeps, and also reform them, Mr. Popper’s Penguins isn’t the kind of story that needs him to be one, unless the creep is not Carrey’s Popper, but some antagonist for the Popper family. The movie’s antagonist/heavy is Clark Gregg as Jones, a smug, mean zoo collector.

 Was it a good idea to hire Anders and Morris, the writing team behind the horny-guys comedies Sex Drive, Hot Tub Time Machine and She’s Out of My League to try to script a heart-warming kids-and-animals family movie comedy like Popper? Even with Stern to help them be heart-warming? In any case, they (or somebody) made lots of dubious changes, none of which work.

 Whatever you think, I like Carrey and I love penguins, though I like them more when David Attenborough is narrating something about them. But I had trouble sitting still for this movie.  You’d think a recognized classic like the Atwaters‘ “Mr. Popper’s Penguins“ — so beloved so long by so many — would be fairly easy to not mess up. But this movie is over-produced, under-written, poorly plotted, a waste of everybody’s talent — especially Carrey, Lansbury and the penguins — and largely laughless. Or at least it was at the critics’ screening I attended. Admittedly, critics can be hard cases. But penguins usually break down anyone‘s resistance. In this case: No ice. I mean, no dice. Whatever.

 If you’re a lover of the original book, I have some advice. Go read the book again. If you don’t know the book and don’t read much, I have more advice. Find a better movie. (It won’t be hard.) The penguins though may deserve another shot, maybe in a sequel, in another movie where Popper retires, leaves the city and settles down with his family in a small town to be a poor but lovable house-painter, with six, and then twelve, emperor penguins on his hands.

Now that might work. Good part for Carrey. Too bad he can’t get Leo McCarey to direct him. Too bad we don’t seem to have any McCareys any more…Well anyway, we’ve got penguins.

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