I’ve never read the book Mr. Popper’s Penguins, but I have to pray that it’s not as soulless and warped as the movie. Tom Popper (Carrey) is standard-issue workaholic dad who doesn’t spend enough time with his kids because he’s so focused on his career and making lots of money. Naturally, his career is shallow and makes him a lot of money, but Carrey already did Neglectful Lawyer Dad in Liar Liar, so now he’s Neglectful Real Estate Dad. But we can always throw some daddy issues on that fire and it turns out that Tom Sr. was always away on an expedition and Tom Jr. grew to resent his father. Then Popper the Elder passes away and leaves his son a penguin as if it were another souvenir from one of his trips. It’s a live creature that needs care and attention, but whatever. When Tom tries to return the penguin, he ends up getting five more due to a miscommunication (over a language barrier! Oh, when will those silly foreigners learn to speak English?).
Obviously, Popper will learn a valuable lesson, realize that his job is awful, become more of a family man, and it’s all thanks to those darn penguins. Kids don’t know these are the beats of the generic family film and they don’t care. But I have seen them and the laziness of the script is magnificent. You could take almost any generic live-action family comedy from the last thirty years, change a few names and plot devices, and boom: You have Mr. Popper’s Penguins. What’s remarkable is you have three credited screenwriters on this thing. And you know that at least one of them got the note: “Needs more penguin shit,” which is how you get a scene where Carrey squeezes the shit out of a penguin. That happens in this movie. Popper picks up a penguin, holds him over the toilet, squeezes the penguin, and a bunch of shit falls into the bowl. You know, for kids.
Kids won’t notice that, their parents probably won’t notice that, but I’m a critic so I notice that. I can’t shoot myself with a memory bullet and make this movie a fresh and exciting experience. What I can do is notice is its depressing subtext.
One of the film’s villains is a zookeeper played by Clark Gregg (the other villain is a tenant who hates Popper and who could have been excised from the film completely; he adds nothing to the movie) . The zookeeper tells Popper that it takes expertise and the proper environment to take care of Penguins. Popper is initially ecstatic that someone is coming to take the penguins off his hands, but then his kids see the penguins, his son assumes they’re a birthday present, Popper is so desperate for his kids’ affection that he lies and says they’re presents, and now he can’t hand them over to the zookeeper because if he does, his kids won’t like him. Parenting lesson 1: Buy off your kids. It will in no way backfire and turn them into spoiled, entitled brats.
The film then tries to explain that Clark Gregg was really up to no good. Was he planning to sell the penguins to a private collector? Was he going to turn them into food for eccentric rich people? Nope. He was going to split them up and send them to different zoos so his zoo, the New York Zoo (not a fly-by night fake zoo, but one of the world’s most famous zoos), could get other animals in return. That is his unforgivable crime and it is better that the penguins go and live with amateur penguin enthusiast Tom Popper because they wuv him.
I think the values the film promotes are perverse. It says as long as you’re wealthy and have an Internet connection, you’re the best caretaker for anything and people with expertise can go screw and those sneaky bastards probably have their own agenda anyway. It says “Hey kids! If your parents really loved you, they would always give into your demands. If they don’t, pout and be bratty, and that should do the trick.” It says to children of divorce that dad needs to stop being a workaholic and just take mom on a date and the marriage will be fixed. And maybe kids will pick up on that.