You may not be expecting much when walking into a film like Mr. Popper’s Penguins. While it certainly won’t blow anyone away it does have some surprises in store and it really is quite good.
There is a quick backstory montage with some flashes that establishes who our protagonist is and what his relationship with his father was like. This sets up our expectations for what he will be like as a grown man. While this set up can have us assuming certain things how they come about is a bit unexpected.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is Jim Carrey’s performance. Here you get what I call a hybrid of his two very distinctive styles, both of which I like. It’s a homogenization of his over-the-top comedy and his dramatic persona much more so than Liar Liar, which is very much the former.
This film also sets up several standard situations but avoids trapping the film in overly-familiar gags and goes about things differently. There are Needing to be Two Places at Once, Apparent Defeat and Ulterior Complications that are to an extent necessary and accepted handled briskly and with a twist such that they’re not stale.
This film by doing those stock things in a slightly more inventive, fresher way does end up being rather funny. There is a good dose of slapstick and verbal comedy thrown into the mix such that it’s balanced.
Comedy aside it is a family film and so the family unit has to be strong in terms of performance and chemistry and this film does that perfectly. Aside from Carrey you have Carla Gugino as his ex-wife and Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton as his children. Though she’s played other roles Gugino since Spy Kids is the prototypical uber-mom charming and appealing to all ages. The kids have very different tasks and handle them brilliantly: Carroll as a teenage girl whose emotions are always teetering on the edge and Cotton who plays the younger brother wise beyond his years. They make fantastic foils and allow Carrey to play drama and comedy at times simultaneously.
The children and the family story ultimately bring out the biggest surprise in that while packaged as a goofy animal film it is a sweet, heartfelt story.
While his dialogue does get a bit repetitive the film does adequately turn the man from the zoo into a serviceable villain. There are also secondary threats to the penguins conditions that never over-intrude but make their presence known.
The CG work that’s done, when it’s needed, in this film is also well-rendered and never too obvious.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins is one of the better surprises I’ve had at the movies in while. Which just goes to show that just as you can’t judge a book by its cover you can’t judge a film by its trailer (or its poster for that matter).