Day 102: Mr. Popper's Penguins

"It's an infestation!"

Jim Carrey has one of the more baffling careers in Hollywood. After languishing in bad movie supporting actor hell for most of the 80s, he got his big break on Fox's In Living Color. He rocketed to movie superstardom in 1994 when he starred in a trio of blockbusters: Ace Ventura, The Mask and Dumb & Dumber. Like all comedy superstars, he decided he wanted to be taken seriously, so starting in 1998, he began balancing his comedies with more serious fare like The Truman Show, Man on the Moon & Simon Birch. Some of these choices paid off, but some were woefully misguided like The Majestic & The Number 23. Lately he's been balancing his work with daring independent films like I Love You Phillip Morris & sanitized family fare like Mr. Popper's Penguins.

Very loosely based on the award winning children's book from 1939, Mr. Popper's Penguins had one of the more unusual roads to a film adaptation. Originally it was to be adapted & directed by Noah Baumbach and star Ben Stiller, but when Baumbach fled the project, so did his star. It passed through several more hands before landing in Carrey's, and the film ultimately ended up being directed by Mean Girls director Mark Waters.

Carrey plays Mr. Popper, an investment banker or something or other, who's current mission is to convince the current owner (Angela Lansbury) of Tavern on the Green to sell the restaurant to his bosses (which include Uncle Junior and Jimmy Gator). His absentee father passes away and leaves him with a gift, six gentoo penguins, which his kids become immediately enamored with, prompting him to decide to care for the penguins himself. He decides to use this as leverage to win back his kids' love & maybe help him get back with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino), but he also runs afoul of a local zookeeper (Clark Gregg) who wants to take the penguins to the zoo where they can be cared for properly.

The film ends up being a mixed bag at best, balancing family drama with corporate takeovers and animal poop jokes. Ultimately it's not a failure, but it's no rousing success either, and more than anything, I am not the film's target demographic, and I think that's key when evaluating a film like this. The movie plays like gangbusters with my kids, and that's the real measure of the film's success.

I was mildly amused by the film, Carrey tends to be at his best when he's not endlessly mugging like 2005's horrendous Fun with Dick & Jane. And I'm not insinuating that this is some of his best work, far from it, but he is a reliable comedian, and can often make the most out of weak material. And this is some pretty weak material, particularly when stretched to feature length. Overall, it's fairly harmless family fun, not great, but certainly not as bad as a film like Zookeeper.

I think that my real problem with the film is the relationship between Popper and his ex. One of the best things about Mrs. Doubtfire was the way it brought things back down to earth at the end when the main characters borderline psychotic behavior almost ensured that he and his ex wife were never going to get back together. In this film, the main character's borderline psychotic behavior actually endears him to his ex, and ends up winning her back in the end. I'm not going to call it dangerous wish fulfillment, but it does send the wrong message to kids, especially those who may come from broken homes. While I'm sure there are a percentage of parents who end up getting back together after an extended estrangement, this is not the norm, especially in modern American society.

I know, I know, I'm reading too much into things. The movie's just about the guy from The Grinch playing with a bunch of penguins, but kids look to the movies as a reflection of the magic that can happen in real life. I know I did when I was a kid. More than anything, I think it's important for parents to talk to kids about the messages in the movies they watch. Too often we just let our kids watch a movie and then ask them very surface questions about their favorite part and what not. If you watch this movie with your kids, and I don't think that's such a terrible idea, talk to them afterwards about it, and get their perspective on it. It couldn't hurt, and it might give you a real idea about what they see happening.

Or don't, it is after all just a movie about cute penguins. Right?

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