Suffer the Penguins

Yet another of the empty, CGI moments in the risible Mr. Popper's Penguins.

Why is Hollywood so scared of poverty? Of love and, gasp!, sex? For that matter, why are parents’ today so scared of showing their children real life?

Mr. Popper’s Penguins (opening today at the Bow Tie Cinemas) is a movie about wealthy people who are so out of touch with reality, it verges on, well, on true insanity. The writers, Sean Anders, John Morris, and Jared Stern have made a film about a wealthy jerk. The jerk has an ex-wife, about whom we know next to nothing, and two spoiled children who deserve profound and frequent punishment. The kids are brats. The neighbors are foul and the doorman takes bribes. In fact, I can’t recall a film with so many nasty people in it. No, I take that back: I have not seen a movie with so many nasty people who are supposed to be normal, nasty people who don’t learn a thing, but are rewarded with a material emptiness that’s supposed to be love.

Where’s Roald Dahl when you need him?

Writers Anders and Morris are like leopards wearing their spots: they wrote a movie called Sex Drive, and another, Hot Tub Time Machine, that’s just plain rotten, so you can’t blame them for scribbling garbage. Stern, on the other hand, wrote The Princess and the Frog, which I found charming, and Bolt, about which I’ve heard great things. Here, they’ve made a picture that’s ostensibly for children, but is in fact callous, shallow, and calculated only to wring money from bored kids and bored parents who simply cannot look around and see that the sun is shining. They’d be better served riding a bike, taking a stroll, or hell, just staring at the leaves on a tree than sitting through this poisonous mess.

Parents, you are also be better served by reading the fucking book. This isn’t a review for children, so I’ll swear here. I might add that if you went outside and flew a kite in the nice breeze while swearing like a sailor, that child would be psychologically and spiritually better off that watching Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

But I digress: Mr. Popper’s Penguins was originally a lovely British children’s book, about the eponymous house painter who is essentially laid off for the winter because people don’t need their homes painted in the snow and cold. The family is moderately alarmed because they know they’ll be feasting on a diet of beans for the winter, since they have little cash on hand. But they love one another, tighten their belts, and prepare to endure.

Lucky people! Popper loves adventure, pores over National Geographic and writes to one Admiral Drake, a British explorer who is traipsing along in the Antarctic. In short, Drake reads Mr. Popper’s letter and sends him a penguin. Well, the beast takes to the family, mates with another at the zoo, and lo and behold, more penguins. They create lovely havoc and joy for everyone involved, including becoming center stage in a circus act to help pay the bills.

Now, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the Jim Carrey vehicle, is not based on the book. Sure, they took the name and put penguins in the film. That is literally it–unless you count that both men make their homes an icy wonderland for the birds. But if I made a movie about a heroin addict who shot up boaters on the Mississippi from his jet ski, and gave the guy the last name of Finn, I couldn’t rightly call the thing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, right? Well, apparently children’s literature, even classic children’s lit, is ripe for exploitation and ruin. Such is the case with Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

Here’s the story in the film: Mr. Popper (Carrey), is a real estate tycoon who sweet talks people out of property they’d rather keep and cherish. That’s a good start. He is estranged from his two children, around whom he acts like some kind of creepy predator. He is divorced from their mother, who has some adventurous job that takes her to Africa, and she’s in a relationship with a man whose awfulness is communicated by his excessive need to hug people. Wow.

Well, Popper is about to become a partner in his real estate firm, development firm, whatever, but has to swindle Angela Lansbury out of Central Park’s famed Tavern on the Green. Great.

And here’s the twist: Carrey had a distant relationship with his father, who was an explorer, and who dies at the start of the movie near the South Pole, where apparently he was working. He leaves Popper a CGI penguin that apparently can be frozen stiff and shipped to Popper’s condo.

Oh, there’s more! Popper promises his kids that they can keep the penguin no matter what. See, he was going to try and get rid of it, finally to the zoo, but then the boy in the family decided he really, really wanted the penguin, so what’s a man to do? Certainly not say no to this kid! Now the evil zoo keeper, who thinks a penguin ought to be in a place with other penguins, served a decent diet, etc. plots to get them away from Popper. Later he will shout vile comments like “these penguins need a vet!”

Damn those veterinarians!

This is where various bad guys arrive: the condo doesn’t want pets, and a calm voiced man asks him to abide by these rules. The doorman bribes Popper, or else he and his birds will get evicted. People on the street mutter mean-spirited comments to Popper. His bosses are cruel, money-grubbing bastards who want to buy all the property in town. Then there’s the Popper family, who’s supposed to be nice I guess, but I don’t know, I thought they were jerks.

Of course, and this being 2011, we can’t under any circumstances increase Popper’s penguin count by having the birds mate, right? Oh, God, no, more penguins are simply mailed to Popper, who then turns his house into an icy amusement park.

There are subplots galore, one involving the teenage girl’s frustration over not being invited to a snow dance, the boy’s need to have these penguins, even though in real life they’d be dying in that place. And of course Mom has to be dissatisfied with her man and get back with Jim Carrey’s hyperactive Popper. The family lives in tremendous wealth, in New York City apartments big enough to house a family of hippos.

Now, I understand that the penguin situation doesn’t have to be totally real. There’s nothing wrong with playing around–this isn’t a documentary, after all. The original Mr. Popper had a house that became a penguin haven, and of course he trains them to perform at the circus, which in 1938 seemed like a land of joy. We now know that circuses aren’t exactly havens for animals, much less penguins. But at least in the original they didn’t show a freaking zookeeper as a heavy. And inexplicably, until the end when this guy goes off the deep end of evil, virtually everything coming out of his mouth was sane, humane, and perfectly reasonable.

By movie’s end, Carrey finds his soul, especially when taking care of a penguin egg, the teenage girl gets her date, the boy is happy, the Mom comes back into their life, Popper is actually given the Tavern on the Green, and everyone is happy and has a great lunch. The family then flies a private helicopter down to Antarctica, you know, like most people would, to let the penguins go. There are no consequences to any actions, every wish come true like a key to the Mall of America.

Again, where is Roald Dahl when you need him?!?

Maybe I’m out of touch. Maybe there’s no room for the subtlety of great children books in movies today, the wonder and amazement at a real penguin that is communicated beautifully in the pages of the original Popper. Some of the slapstick in the book clearly owes a debt to Chaplin. In Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the movie, the fake birds are transfixed by watching the Tramp’s classic The Circus on TV, but would that this film has the grace and charm of just one frame of that lovely picture.

Love involves discipline. Love involves paying attention, and showing respect. Mr. Popper’s Penguins has none of this. The writers, the director, the actors wandering throughout and mugging excessively–no one cares. A lazy movie about nothing, from a beautiful little book that is almost literally about everything beautiful in a family, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is best ignored in favor of a bike ride, conversation, a pleasant lunch… or the original Mr. Popper’s Penguins read on a library bench.

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