Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Posted on June 16, 2011 at 6:25 pm

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.”

Actually, don’t.

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”

Related Tags:


Based on a book Comedy Family Issues Fantasy

5 Replies to “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”

  1. Nell,

    Really well written review! And I certainly appreciated the introduction. Interesting assessment on comedians in family films. You are right, these movies do tend to follow a cookie-cutter type formula, don’t they? Much like the rom-com.

    Anyways, I am glad to see a positive review for this film. I’ve always liked Jim Carey (who is never given enough credit as an actor. Man on the Moon, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show) and was sort of on the fence about this one.

    Oh yeah, and I noticed a typo. A few paragraphs in, you wrote, “Jim Carey plans the son…” I believe you meant “plays.” Sorry, I hate to be that guy. Thought somebody should mention it. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    1. Thanks for a wonderful comment, Scott! And please, please, be “that guy!” I love it when people let me know about corrections. Ten and you get a free copy of my book, so only nine more to go!

  2. This is my first post, and I’m mostly posting to compliment you on changing your title picture/banner. You look wonderful! And, as a greying mother of 2, I appreciate the update.

    I also wanted to let you know how much we love your reviews. Not just the kids, but the parents here agree with you most of the time, too. (Roger Ebert is our other go-to reviewer, and we usually like to see what you and he have to say about a movie before we commit our precious date night time to it.) You are a common reference around our household. Our 10-year-old son, who has autism, will not watch a movie in the theaters until he reads “what Movie Mom says about it.” His sister, on the other hand, is currently watching “Judy Moody” with her dad — probably because you gave it a bad write-up! (Our son is happily engrossed in a French documentary on insects, while I’m finding myself imagining all sorts of itches.)

    Looking forward to reading all your future reviews and hoping you add more films from the past…

    1. Thanks, Donna Jo! I am over the moon to be in the same category as Roger Ebert, whose reviews I have been reading since he was in his 20’s. You made my day.

Comments are closed.

THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2024, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik