I read “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” – Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1938 children’s novella – in absolute dread of the movie adaptation. It isn’t that the book was bad (the Atwaters’ writing is delightfully matter-of-fact about all sorts of silliness). It’s that I could easily see how horribly Hollywood would mangle it.
I didn’t know the half of it. Mr. Popper’s Penguins, starring Jim Carrey in the title role, not only amps up the animal antics from the book to a spastic degree (my early fear), it’s also crude, overly computerized and insensitive to the imaginations of little kids. I feel bad about taking my own to see it.
Instead of the affable, daffy house painter of the original, Mr. Popper is now a divorced, high-powered real-estate broker having trouble connecting with his kids. When a penguin is delivered to his door step, lessons about caring, responsibility and putting family first ensue.
So Mr. Popper’s Penguins is one of those groaning family morality tales, complete with the unhealthy fantasy that a happy ending requires that the divorced parents get back together. There are also three scenes involving penguin poop (which would be three more than are in the book) and so many CGI penguins that we might as well be watching the latest version of Angry Birds. Yes, live penguins do appear here and there, but none have much of a personality (unless making one of them flatulent counts).
For his part, Carrey does a lot of grimacing, sometimes on cue. He also frequently spits out a nonsensical catchphrase – “Yabsolutely!” – through gritted teeth.
My kids usually like to talk about which character was their favorite after we get out of a movie, but they were hard-pressed to come up with one after Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Finally, they settled on a bit part – Popper’s assistant – because of the way most of her words began with the letter “p.”
That tells you pretty much all you need to know about Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Jim Carrey and six birds are less charming than a walking alliteration joke.