It used to be that a comedian who wanted to be in movies had to make an armed services comedy. Now, we stick them in domestic stories about daddies who need to learn that the family is more important than the office. Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey have all been, there, some more than once. Other performers take on movies through this rite of passage: look at Ice Cube’s “Are We There Yet?” and “Are We Done Yet?” or The Rock in “The Game Plan” or “The Tooth Fairy,” or Hulk Hogan in “Mr. Nanny” or Vin Diesel in “The Pacifier.”
As rigidly structured as a limerick, these films also require: crotch hits, potty humor, grumpy bosses, and Daddy working through his own issues before finding that what really matters is family. Sometimes, as happens here, they appropriate the title of a beloved book and then jettison just about everything else about it. I’m still hoping for an authentic version of the real-life story “Cheaper by the Dozen,” updating the classic movie version with Clifton Webb. The charming book by Richard and Florence Atwater merits more than a homeopathic speck of a relationship to a movie someday as well.
The book, written in 1938, is the story of a decorator who dreams of adventure and is sent a penguin by an antarctic explorer. In the movie, Jim Carrey plays the son of an explorer who was never home when he was growing up. Now in his 40’s, he is the divorced father of two who works so hard for a company that buys beautiful old buildings and tears them down to build new ones that he misses a lot of soccer games and dance recitals. He very much wants to be a name partner in the firm. If he can make one more big acquisition for the company, it’s his. The only privately-held space in Central Park is the elegant old restaurant, Tavern on the Green. In real life, it is now closed, but in the movie it is owned by redoutable dowager Mrs. Van Grundy (Angela Lansbury).
And then, a crate is delivered. Mr. Popper’s father has died and he has inherited a penguin, soon followed by five more. Popper tries desperately to get rid of the penguin until his son Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) sees them and thinks they are his birthday present. So Popper keeps them as a way to connect to his kids, even though his building does not allow pets and a zealous zookeeper wants to take them away. Various forms of chaos disrupt Popper’s life, interfering with his efforts to persuade Mrs. Van Grundy to sell and the no-pets rule in his apartment building but enhancing his communications with his children and ex-wife. As he scrambles to create an optimal environment for the penguins, his home starts to look more and more like the South Pole. And when three of the penguins lay eggs, it brings out his protective father instincts.
Carrey gets to make faces and do some improvising, which is undeniably fun, and there are some clever lines. Popper’s son describes his upset middle-school sister as “95 pounds of C4 explosives on a hair trigger. You’re in the hurt locker now.” Carrey has some fun with the sillier situations and the lovely Madeline Carroll (Popper’s daughter) is a welcome presence. The book that inspired it is warmly remembered more than 70 years later. The movie may not be remembered by the time you get home.
Parents should know that this film includes bodily function humor, a drug joke, some schoolyard language and almost s-word, sad offscreen death of parent, and sadness over an egg that doesn’t hatch. Spoiler alert: it also has the “Parent Trap” problem of divorced parents reuniting, which may be a sensitive issue for some families.
Family discussion: Why did Mr. Popper change his mind about the penguins? How did the penguins change him? Which was your favorite penguin? What would be the best thing about having penguins in your home, and what would be the hardest?
If you like this, try: “The Game Plan” and “Imagine That” and of course, “March of the Penguins”