When I was a kid, I read a lot of books. The most fond tales of my youth include Sword of Shannara (Terry Brooks), Dear Mr. Henshaw (Beverly Clearly), Charlotte’s Web (EB White) and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (Richard & Florence Atwater). Each one of those books holds special memories and I’ve read each of them at least a few times. Today, we get to explore another one of those treasured books in film form. Enter, Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
It is the year 1976, we have a very young Tom Popper Jr. who is simply known as Tippy Toe on the radio. His father on the other side of the broadcast is known as Bald Eagle and he travels around the world in search of various adventures. They communicate for a long time over the radio but sometimes have lapses (such as the one from 1976-1981) where Bald Eagle does not make contact for the longest time. The last transmission was that he was on the verge of something big. That was unfortunately thirty years ago.
Present day, Thomas Popper Jr. (played by Jim Carrey) is all grown up and is a very successful businessman who buys out properties, bulldozes them and then turns them into high rise condos. At his side is his executive assistant, Pippi (played by Ophelia Lovibond) who keeps his meetings together and helps out Tom in about every way imaginable. In an early demonstration of his work, Tom is able to convince a retiring Mr. Gremmins (played by Jeffrey Tambor) to sell his property.
Popper Jr. wants to do more than just convince retirees to sell their property for condos, he wants to be a partner at Franklin, Reader and Yates. However, before that can happen he is given the task of convincing Selma Van Gundy (played by Angela Lansbury) to sell Tavern on the Green, a classic restaurant to the firm. After Tom Popper Jr. leaves the office, he learns of some depressing news. His dad has passed away.
In the will, he is left a souvenir of some sort and it will arrive from the Arctic very soon. Popper mostly dismisses the notion expecting a trinket or a snow globe. Popper lives alone having been divorced from his ex, Amanda (played by Carla Gugino). He gets visitation rights with his two children, Janie and Billy (played by Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton) on a regular basis. Amanda has currently moved on and is dating a guy named Rick (played by James Tupper).
The next morning, Popper gets a large wooden crate that must be his father’s “souvenir”. It appears to be an ice packed cold crate with a stuffed penguin inside. However, after a little defrost, the penguin is not stuffed, it is just asleep. Popper has a real live penguin in his apartment. Popper’s first inclination is to pick up the penguin which leaves the businessman with a little poop for his troubles. He does not have time to deal with the penguin and decides to stick it in an ice bath upstairs and leave the door closed. He heads to Tavern on the Green.
The first meeting with Van Gundy does not go as planned. Selma is interested in selling the property only to somebody of “worth”. She does not mean net worth either as Tom fails to grasp the situation properly and can not close the sale. Meanwhile, the penguin has figured out how to turn the faucet on and has flooded the bathroom (with the door still closed). When Popper gets home, he opens the door to a large wave of water which engulfs him. After drying himself off, he realizes he can not properly take care of the penguin.
Tom Popper Jr. calls everybody from his father’s former co-workers (whom can’t understand him) to animal control (who does not take penguins) in hopes that somebody will take this penguin back. Nobody seems to biting as the tale goes. But as we know, fate plays a curious tale when a second crate shows up at his apartment door that looks similar to the first. Popper thinks that it is a crate to ship back the penguin. When he opens it up, he finds a different story inside.
As mentioned in the introduction, I am a huge fan of the book. I know it by heart and while the film is not a straight interpretation of the book, it clearly has the heart and messages contained in the pages of the children’s classic. Jim Carrey is fantastic as he has played a similar character in Liar Liar. His expressions and ease with the creatures is something worth seeing. He knows when to draw attention to himself but also when to let the penguins steal the show as they often do.
The rest of the cast gives us good fodder to develop this into a beautiful family story of a child’s love. Angela Lansbury does a great job as do the children in this picture. My only negative is that some of the love felt superficial and that the only reason they wanted to spend any time with Popper was that he had some cool birds to play with. Also, the Rick character was played far too kind and should have posed more of a threat to Popper when he tries to get his wife back. Either that or the character should have been dropped completely.
The video is in 1.85:1 widescreen presentation in 1080p resolution. This is filmed in New York and has a lot of impressive shots of the city life (including the Guggenheim). The color is excellent and there is a lot of detail in the shots. In fact, most are going to struggle to find any difference between the live and CGI penguins. New York is a beautiful winter wonderland and is on full display here with plenty of wonderful whites and blacks to go around.
For the audio portion, we get a 5.1 English DTS-HD (5.1 mixes included for French and Spanish along with a 5.1 English Descriptive track). Dialog is crystal clear and there should be no problems with any of the conversation. There are plenty of sound effects for penguins, ice/snow and general environmental sounds and they do their best to spread around the audio landscape. In turn, they give your system lots to be happy about and provide a full experience. Subtitles are included for English SDH, French and Spanish.
- Automatic Trailers: Digital Copy, Alvin & The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, Marley & Me: The Puppy Years, and Tooth Fairy 2 (could possibly be the worst trailer I have ever seen…with that said it will probably end up in my review pile).
- Audio Commentary with Director Mark Waters, Editor Bruce Green and Visual Effects Supervisor Richard Hollander: These three perhaps worked closest together for the duration of the film and they are here to provide plenty of technical tidbits and information about production. There are plenty of good nuggets about Jim Carrey as well as the penguins. Things are very smooth here and there is hardly any dead spots to speak of.
- Nimrod and Stinky’s Antarctic Adventure 6:11: This is a rudimentary six minute flash animated (by the looks of it) short. The story is the penguins are now television celebrities and the zookeeper is again looking to get them so he can make a trade.
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary 14:31: Fourteen different scenes are included here. Most of this is really good (and funny) stuff and probably only cut down due to time constraints. Keep in mind if a particular scene was to have CGI penguins rather than real ones, they are only partly animated.
- Gag Reel 2:05: Point me into the group that would have thought this would go a lot farther than two minutes, especially with somebody like Carrey involved. Great stuff, but very short.
- The Legacy of Mr. Popper’s Penguins 4:04: The original book was written primarily by Richard Atwater but after he suffered a stroke (leaving him with an inability to speak or write), his wife Florence cleaned up the manuscript and made it marketable for the masses. It was published in 1938 (4 years after Richard’s stroke) and won a Newberry Honor the subsequent year. It is a little surprising that it took nearly seventy five years to become a film.
- Ready for their Closeup 8:27: A necessary featurette that goes over the live penguin usage and how they had to build thirty degree sets and use disinfectant everywhere. They also talk about how the penguins stayed on their marks and how well Jim Carrey got along with them. Very fun and fascinating.
- Ladies and Gentoomen 5:55: It is a short trip to Seaworld San Diego where we learn about penguins. Needless to say, they would not make a very good pet.
- Stuffy Penguin Theater 4:21: This talks about how they had to make use of CGI and Stuffy Penguins. Stuffy refers to synthetic penguins used to step through certain scenes (before they are animated), not actual stuffed penguins. Amazing how this came together.
- Penguin Pandemonium with Optional Commentary 3:12: This takes ones of the scenes and goes through the shot in the many ways they have to do it from the director just walking it out with no penguins to the 100% shot with full animation and Jim Carrey. There are also plenty of shots in between so we can see the different layers of how complicated this movie was to do at times.
- Original Story Sampler: The first three chapters of the actual book, complete with music and a little bit of animation. Honestly though, go pick up the real book. The text is fairly hard to read and is more liable to incite a headache than any real enjoyment.
- Theatrical Trailer 1:13: The very short trailer. (no wonder it did not break $100 million domestically)
- DVD: The dvd if you need it (or want to gift to a friend with dvd only in an attempt to get them to switch over to blu-ray).
- Digital Copy: Digital copy is also included as a third disc and this is housed in a 3 disc case with a slipcover. Nice item for the collection.
When this film was originally cast, Ben Stiller was up for the lead role of Tom Popper Jr. Think about that for a second. It would not have been zany Dodgeball or Zoolander Ben Stiller that most of us love, but instead it would have been: Meet the Parents snorefest Ben Stiller. Yes, those movies made plenty of money, but honestly this would have not worked out as well as it did. Jim Carrey provided the perfect punch and comic appeal in a role that was perfectly suited for him to play up to his strengths.
The 3-disc blu-ray package is a fantastic set with great audio and video. The extras are pretty meaty and are capped off with a wonderful commentary for us to listen too. This film is remarkable for the use of penguins and for keeping to the spirit of the original book. Sure, it has been modernized quite a bit but you still feel the energy of a book written over seventy years ago. Recommended as a great family film or to understand why penguins do not make good pets, this film should be enjoyed for years to come.