He was a dreamer. Even when he was busiest smoothing down the paste on the wallpaper, or painting the outside of other people’s houses, he would forget what he was doing. Once he had painted three sides of a kitchen green, and the other side yellow. The housewife, instead of being angry and making him do it over, had liked it so well that she made him leave it that way. And all the other housewives, when they saw it, admired it too, so that pretty soon everybody in Stillwater had two colored kitchens. – from Mr. Popper’s Penguins, page 5 -
The classic children’s book Mr. Popper’s Penguins, written in 1938 by Richard and Florence Atwater, takes place in the small fictional town of Stillwater where Mr. Popper lives with his wife and two children. Mr. Popper is a dreamer, a man who works as a painter but longs to travel the world. When a letter written to Admiral Drake results in a surprise delivery of a live penguin from Antarctica, the Popper’s family is turned upside down. Then a second penguin arrives unexpectedly from a zoo, and the penguins begin to multiply. Before the Poppers know it, their home has been converted into a freezing playground for penguins. Eventually, Mr. Popper discovers that penguin antics are marketable and the Popppers hit the road with their penguins to entertain the public.
The book is delightful, silly and wholly fantastical. Children of all ages will find this 1939 Newbury Honor winner whimsical and fun.
It is no wonder, then, that Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment is releasing the modern retelling of the story (based loosely on the book) on December 6th. Starring Jim Carrey as Thomas Popper and Angela Lansbury as Selma Van Gundy (a woman who owns an historical restaurant slated for destruction), the movie opens in New York City with Thomas Popper as a successful businessman with an art for persuasion. Divorced with two children, Thomas has little time for family…a fact which stems directly from his abandonment issues from childhood (his father, an enthusiastic adventurer, spent most of Thomas’s childhood traveling the world). When Thomas gets the news that his father has passed away in Antarctica, the last thing he expects is a crate bearing a live penguin…followed by a second crate with five more penguins.
Jim Carrey is hilarious in the role of Mr. Popper as his svelte New York City apartment is converted into a penguin’s dreamworld. But beneath the humor is a larger message – that of letting go of wealth and prestige to focus on the less tangible things which bring us joy: family, love and personal relationships.
The Mr. Popper of the movie is not the carefree, slightly eccentric Mr. Popper of the book. Instead, viewers will recognize the wholly modern version of the American family with divorced parents and a father whose dedication to his work damages his family connections. When the loveable, rambunctious penguins take center stage, however, redemption and second chances abound.
This is a heartwarming movie which is perfect for the holiday season. Kids and parents alike will enjoy the antics of the penguins (the movie uses both computer generated and live animals). I thoroughly enjoyed Carrey’s physical comedy. The lesser known Ophelia Lovibond does an admirable job as Mr. Popper’s assistant Pippi. Her constant alliteration of all things beginning with “p” will especially appeal to younger viewers. And of course, Angela Lansbury is wonderful, as you would expect.
The DVD has some great extra features including the making of the film using live penguins, an educational bit about penguins, and an animated feature of what happens “after” the movie.
My conclusion: both the book and the movie are fun and entertaining. The movie is a very loose interpretation of the book, but will engage all audiences…especially children, but with an appeal for adults as well.
Interview with Ophelia Lovibond on the red carpet at a special screening of Mr Popper’s Penguins at the Empire Cinema in London: