By Vicki Cole
Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) is a successful real estate developer whose dedication to his work has seemingly been at the cost of his marriage and family. When he turns his attentions to acquiring Mrs Van Gundy’s (Angela Lansbury’s) Central Park restaurant, a place filled with tradition and family memories, he is forced to demonstrate his character, integrity and worth. A feat made all the more difficult thanks to a posthumous gift from his notably absent father, six penguins that cause havoc to his work centric lifestyle.
Mr Popper’s Penguins centres on the idea that Popper is a cold-hearted workaholic who is a constant disappointment to his family and whose own apartment is supposed to reflect the empty nature of his life, a vacuum, lacking in personality and devoid of love and laughter. Herein lies the big problem: Popper quite clearly has a good heart and his family, including his ex-wife, are evidently extremely fond of him. Carrey clearly wasn’t in the mood to get his Grinch (2000) on during the shoot. There is no pivotal moment in the film where the audience realise that his heart has melted because, in truth, it never had cause to thaw. Popper is little more than a husband and a father who has prioritised work meetings over soccer games and dance recitals, a notion which most parents are likely to identify with and probably don’t want to feel demonised for.
There is an element of Carrey’s trademark comedy acting on show here, however the over the top gesticulations and rubber face expressions circa The Mask (1994) are very much toned down for a slightly more subtle performance. Carrey has a the ability to depict heartbreak and despair in a beautifully delicate manner, best displayed in the sublime Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004) which is arguably the performance of his career. In Mr Popper’s Penguins the audience are treated to a rare glimpse of this when he cares for a penguin egg that fails to hatch. Popper is both dedicated and committed, doing all that he can to try to coax the hatching, but it in vain. The devastation etched into his face makes this one the most honest and understated scene in the film.
Naturally, however, it is undeniably the penguins that are the real stars of this show. A combination of live animals and CGI results in an endearing brood whose names reflect their individual personality trait such as ‘loudy’ and ‘lovey.’ Popper’s home becomes filled with laughter as he turns it into a winter wonderland, of sorts, to accommodate his new houseguests.
Mr Popper’s Penguins teeters on exploring the depths of themes such as abandonment, bereavement and the breakdown of the family unit, but director Mark Waters consciously limits audience appeal through inoffensive slapstick comedy and a predictable plot. Whilst its heart is in the right place, much like its titular bird, Mr Popper’s Penguins lacks the ability to take flight.