Mr. Popper’s Penguins has been characterized by the consensus at Rotten Tomatoes as harmless and forgettable and, yes, both of those qualities are indisputably true. The film didn’t harm me and probably won’t harm you, and by this time next month anyone over the age of five who sees it will have almost certainly forgotten it. But Mr. Popper’s Penguins does represent a particularly Hollywood tendency that’s worth noting: It presents a man undergoing what’s essentially a nervous breakdown as a path to Greater Understanding, which in this case means that a good job is less important than turning his high-priced condo into a penguin-inhabited winter wonderland for his ex-wife and kids.
Most obviously these kinds of films are made by rich people who hypocritically fantasize about how one should never compromise themselves for money, as money is, by offensive implication, not strictly necessary. Mr. Popper (Jim Carrey) is the traditional hero for such a tale, a high-priced smoothie with daddy issues (Tom Cruise and George Clooney have together played this role roughly 45 times) whose life of emotionally removed privilege is upturned when he inherits six penguins from his often-absent explorer father. Mr. Popper finds the penguins to be a nuisance at first until predictably giving in to the charms of their cuteness and simplicity. Never mind that any sensible adult would find such an inheritance irritating and, well, loony, as that sort of notion would interfere with the film’s cuddly assertion that it’s perfectly reasonable that Popper jeopardize his job and, further on down the line, a relationship with his children that isn’t centered around desperate absent-father gimmickry.
Yes, this is a movie about Jim Carrey and cute penguins and children and can’t we just evaluate the film on those terms? But one should also be aware of the accidental, insidious subtexts with which movies often traffic. Mr. Popper’s Penguins never questions either the personal or practical necessity of Popper’s ambition and thus sets itself up as another shallow anti-commercialist fable meant to remind middle-class families that it’s okay that the money for next month’s rent doesn’t exist, as they’ve got one another. The possibility that shortage of money is one of the great causes for the splintering of the family unit is beyond the imagination of films such as Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
The film doesn’t provide the more direct, literal pleasures of a movie centered around kids and animals either. Carrey’s an often amazing actor who occasionally earns a laugh with his characteristically oft-kilter vocal delivery here, and he—somewhat incredibly considering the circumstances—has legitimate chemistry with the penguins. But there’s simply nothing to play. Mr. Popper’s Penguins is rote and uninspired; there are no great, freeing flights of fancy, and the jokes are too often centered on the birds taking squats in inconvenient places. Rewatch Liar Liar instead; it has similar thematic problems, but it’s at least staged and performed with considerably greater gusto. Or better yet, catch Jim Carrey’s sterling, haunting work in Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol.
A terrific transfer that, as befitting a film concerned with penguins, preserves a visual scheme that is often a series of variations of sharply contrasting blacks and whites. The wintery cityscapes are vividly pristine and the penguins themselves are allowed to look rather wonderful in their slippery, shimmery high-def Blu-ray glory. This is a quiet film that doesn't really allow for a show-off surround sound show, but the mixes here are in proper sync and textured with appropriate depth.
The extras are more enjoyable than the actual movie, as they allow you to concentrate solely on Jim Carrey mugging with the penguins without the accompanying misplaced moralizing. "Stuffy Penguin Theater" and "Penguin Pandemonium" are succinct, informative features that provide a glimpse of the mixtures of live animal choreography and computer effects that went into the creation of the many penguin shots. The audio commentary by director Mark Waters, editor Bruce Green, and visual effects supervisor Richard Hollander mostly provides the same information, but it's appealingly breezy and affectionate. The story sampler allows viewers to access the opening of the original children's book, though one can't help but wonder why the entire story wasn't made available. Context on the completion of that book, in case you're wondering, is also provided with the short feature "The Legacy of Mr. Popper's Penguins." The deleted scenes, gag reel, and trailer are typically disposable, though the only outright awful feature is the animated short Nimrod and Stinky's Antartic Adventure, but it's mercifully only five minutes long.
One of Jim Carrey's weakest efforts gets admittedly attentive Blu-ray treatment.