Original US release date: June 17, 2011
Production budget: $55,000,000
Worldwide gross: $187,361,754
From comedy director Mark Waters (best known for Mean Girls) comes Mr. Popper’s Penguins, an adaptation of the 1938 children’s book of the same name by Richard and Florence Atwater. I am unfamiliar with the book, myself, but I remember being a little perplexed when I fist saw the trailer for the film. Jim Carrey has long been one of my favorite actors and 2011 was well past the time when he was at the top of the industry. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was slumming it, a little bit. The film both looked and sounded silly and like something that was unsure of who it was trying to lure into the theater. But, I’m a dedicated fan, so I paid my money and sat down on opening weekend.
And Jim Carrey was the sole reason I was there. Carrey actually wasn’t the original actor set to play the titular role of Tom Popper. Originally, Ben Stiller was cast and exited the project when the original director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) left the film. No one can know what the film would have been under their guidance, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw from Waters, Carrey, and crew.
Carrey is the heart of the film. I’m not willing to state that it couldn’t have worked without him, but the overall package gets a boost, thanks to his involvement. Tom Popper’s character arc is honestly rather common and clichéd, but Carrey’s performance and delivery adds an extra touch of charm to the proceedings. It’s obvious from the outset that Popper is not a bad guy, but has just lost himself in his misplaced priorities. Getting that sort of message across while remaining endearing can be a challenge, but Carrey breezes through it like the professional talent that he is.
In addition to Carrey, Clark Gregg of Marvel fame (as Phil Coulson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) portrays Nat Jones, the zookeeper determined to wrest the penguins away from Popper. Gregg is great but his character is probably the biggest issue I had with the film as he’s portrayed as a villain, but he’s really not one. Every thing he does, every move he makes is in the interest of the penguins and their health and safety. He never acts selfishly or out of spite. He’s just a guy doing his job which he frankly seems to be quite caring and passionate about. Like I said, I’m unfamiliar with the book but regardless of Jones’s role in the original story, I feel like it should have been rewritten for the film to give children (and adults, I guess, too) a reason to truly dislike him outside of him trying to keep the main character from breaking the law.
The scene-stealing hidden gem of the movie is Ophelia Lovibond (also from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, portraying Carina in both Thor: The Dark World and, more prominently, Guardians of the Galaxy). Her alliteration-addicted Pippi, as assistant to Popper, got the first real laugh of the film from me and delights every time she appears. It’s a shame her star hasn’t shot higher in the years, since, but she’s young and sometimes all that’s needed is one perfect role.
Speaking of laughing, the film is surprisingly funny. It’s also expressly heartwarming. The two characteristics combine to elevate the film above its inherited artistic status as a kid’s film about animals. The heartwarming components, while effective, are – much like Popper’s character arc – somewhat clichéd. But that’s compensated for by the unexpected laughs. And the laughs, while solid and consistent, aren’t typically the gut-busting sort one might expect from a Jim Carrey film. But, that is similarly offset by the unavoidable charm of the picture. Throw in Carrey and Lovibond as the icing on the cake and Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a film that epitomizes the idea of being greater than the sum of its parts.
The film probably isn’t going to achieve any sort of status as a classic, but it’s much more than you would expect based on what you might remember from the ineffective marketing. I would never have seen it without Carrey’s involvement – and it very well may not have been as good without him – but I’m pleased it all came together as it did. Mr. Popper’s Penguins is not a film about penguins. It’s a film about family involving penguins that will probably make you chuckle against your will on more than a few occasions. Give it a shot, if you haven’t already.
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