Perhaps it’s not fair for adults to review movies that obviously weren’t intended for them. What will the average 8-year-old take away from a screening of Mr. Popper’s Penguins? One word: penguins. More words: Penguins slip-sliding down hallways. Pertly tilting their heads. Squawking. Defecating. Causing havoc in a museum, just like the average kid would love to do. Cavorting on an ice rink that a rich guy named Mr. Popper (Jim Carrey) has improvised in his Manhattan penthouse. Seriously, a penthouse with a penguin-inhabited ice rink? Even an adult can grasp the sweetness of that setup.
The average 8-year-old has never heard of Carrey and doesn’t care that this role makes his work in the tepid family comedy Liar Liar look like Oscar material. He’s just a spastic, intermittently amusing old guy who has some problems involving his kids and ex-wife (Carla Gugino) that our average young viewer will ignore or instantly forget on exiting the theater.
Trust me on this. What do I remember about Disney’s The Cat From Outer Space (1978)? Well, there was a cat. From outer space. Did Benji, the story of an adorable mutt, feature tiresomely wacky adult characters along the lines of Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), Mr. Popper’s assistant, whose alliterative dialogue suggests she has a perverse predilection for the letter P? I couldn’t tell you. Kids are great at overlooking things they don’t care about.
Not so with us adults. We will be painfully aware that the film is not a straight adaptation of Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1938 book about a working-class family acquiring a passel of penguins. Instead, it’s another Hollywood saga of an affluent workaholic who comes to the astounding realization that he should spend more time with his family.
A housepainter in the book, Mr. Popper onscreen has become a big-time real estate developer who needs to acquire Tavern on the Green from crotchety owner Angela Lansbury to make partner at his firm. In addition to his intimacy and attachment problems, Carrey’s character has daddy issues: His father traveled the world instead of spending quality time with him. When Popper Senior expires, he leaves Junior six exuberant little friends from the Antarctic.
The birds make Popper’s existence a living hell, until he learns they serve as excellent lures for his precocious son (Maxwell Perry Cotton) and sulky teen daughter (Madeline Carroll), who normally avoid him. Eager to win back the love of his ex and kids, Popper is suddenly all about the penguins, all the time. Only a zookeeper (Clark Gregg) dares to suggest that Carrey’s fancy pad might not be the best environment for these critters. He, of course, is the villain.
The penguins, part real and part digitally animated, are cute when they’re doing things actual penguins might conceivably do. The movie’s conceit is deeply flattering to any child: Imagine if your dad allowed his home to be overrun by animals that behaved like chaos-causing kids simply because he thought it would please you. Divorced or office-bound parents, beware: A kid who figures out the film’s underlying message may just start asking for a puppy, or a pony.
Or a penguin. With any luck, you can distract the young ones from such plans by giving them another screening of Despicable Me, a similarly themed movie with much funnier execution. And, decades from now, they’ll remember only one thing about this lackluster summer flick: penguins!