WRITTEN by Richard and Florence Atwater in 1938, Mr Popper’s Penguins began life as a book for young children about a dreamy, whimsical housepainter in a small American town called Stillwater, who one day receives by special delivery a wooden box with air holes that contains a penguin from the South Pole.
The gift is from a famous explorer, Admiral Drake, who is Mr Popper’s hero, and from this fanciful beginning Mr Popper and his family embark on a charming, offbeat adventure, beautifully illustrated by Robert Lawson, which has over generations become an American classic.
Now Mr Popper’s Penguins has been made into a film starring Jim Carrey, and while its contemporary storyline is different to the book and its unassuming Mr Popper bears little resemblance to the boisterous, extroverted Carrey, just enough of the book’s originality and quirkiness remains to make the film entertaining and moderately amusing.
Jim Carrey’s Tom Popper is a fast-talking real estate agent, who lives on his own in a palatial apartment in the heart of the city.
The only child of a father whose hunger for exotic places meant that the boy rarely saw him, Popper is estranged from his wife Amanda (Carla Gugino) and two children Janie (Madeline Carroll) and Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), but keeps in regular contact with them.
Popper is desperate to become a partner in the firm that he works for.
This will only happen if he manages to persuade the elderly Mrs Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury) to sell them her old but well-tended restaurant, The Tavern on the Green, thus enabling the company to construct a huge new development on the coveted site.
But life suddenly changes for Popper when his father dies, and a crate containing a penguin is delivered to his door.
The penguin attaches itself to Popper immediately, and all his efforts to get rid of the bird are not only thwarted by officialdom and the bird’s needs, but compounded further when another crate arrives.
This results in Popper becoming the full-time custodian of six energetic, squawking, independently minded penguins whose needs alter not only the look and temperature of his apartment, but his attitude to life.
Mr Popper’s Penguins has several things going for it.
The endearing antics of the (CGI) penguins will delight children and their parents as they slide on floors and dive off balconies, and Jim Carrey too is enjoyable to watch, as is Angela Lansbury.
But the film also highlights the paucity of imagination of many American filmmakers who with an eye on the box office reshape the inventive creations of past generations as formulaic vehicles for contemporary concerns.
Carrey’s Mr Popper is a man in crisis in both his marriage and his job.
The boy neglected by his father wants to be a better dad, but in today’s cut-throat, materialistic society, doesn’t know how to accomplish this.
The penguins teach him how to care and to love, and to connect not only with his children and his wife, but the wider world.
This moral is laudable, and has great potential.
But grafted onto the original story in the predictable, heavy-handed way the filmmakers have chosen, it allows for very few surprises, and considerable “ho-hum”.
Notwithstanding these reservations, however, all power to the filmmakers for bringing back into the limelight the whimsical, fanciful story of Mr Popper’s Penguins, which has been out of print in Australia since 1976.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.