Based on the beloved children's book, 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' is about a loving, but unreliable divorced father, Dylan Popper Jr. (as played by Jim Carrey) who is out of touch with his teenage daughter, and has been known to forget important things like the birthdays of his preteen son because he's been too busy ambitiously devouring New York City real estate. Also, when married, he wasn't really a good husband -- not a bad one, mind you, because this is a family film, but let's assume he wasn't there enough. Sadly, poor Popper fails to remember that he was too heartbroken as a child because his own father, Popper Sr., spent too much time away on worldwide adventures. Like father, like son, as they say.
When we meet Popper Jr., he wants nothing more than to become a partner at his commercial real estate firm. You know, one of those slick places that tears down old places to build something bigger and newer. In order to become partner, Popper must buy the Tavern on the Green. AKA, the only piece of commercial real estate in Central Park that can be bought and sold. Standing in his way, we find Selma Van Gundy (the delightful Angela Lansbury). She will only sell to a person she deems to have worth. Friends, this old lady smells bullshit a mile away, and it'll take all of Popper Jr.'s slick schmoozing to win her over. Or better yet, wouldn't it be great if Popper was forced to learn a valuable life lesson that made him become the perfect thematic person and enable him make said impossible real estate sale? I think you can see where this is going.
On the very same day Popper is supposed to meet Van Gundy, a posthumous gift arrives from the dearly departed Popper Senior: six Gentoo Penguins. Popper Jr. immediately tries to rid himself of the flightless beasts, but his family meets them and falls in love (Popper Jr.'s son thinks they're his birthday present, and his teenage daughter opens up for the first time since puberty). As one would expect, the pets become Popper's way back into the hearts of his children and ex-wife while simultaneously threatening to undermine his job performance and apartment building bi-laws. Hilarity ensues.
Critical reception and box office numbers were tepid for the family film when it opened this summer. On my own, I probably wouldn't have seen the film in theatres, but after watching the previews, two things made me give a chance: 1) I'm a sucker for bird films, having hand raised a few parrots, and 2) my wife is a sucker for cute family films starring animals and her enthusiasm for such things is infectious.
And you know what? 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' is a fun family film. Sure, it's saddled with the same old "father has to learn to be a father" story ('Night at the Museum', 'Liar Liar', 'Yes Man', 'Click', 'The Family Man' ) found in recent family comedies, and it must be really nice having a pleasant relationship with an ex-wife because no one holds any grudges, but the Penguins are a hoot. Especially when they're hooting. They each have different, silly personalities to worm their way into the characters' and audiences' collective hearts. Most of the humor is aimed at kids, but let's be serious for moment: if you think pratfalls and poop jokes are always funny, this movie has buckets of birdie doo-doo.
The film's emotional arc is predictable, but works well as the whole Popper family bonds over their penguins. Human performers do an admirable job, but can't compete with six cute animals (though my hats off to the filmmakers and young actor Maxwell Perry Cotton for his 'Hurt Locker' line -- that gave me a belly laugh). Even Mr. Carrey, who turns in a physical performance akin to his 1990s films, is upstaged. I suppose his crazy faces and zany body movements are less unusual since he's been a famous comedian for over 20 years. He's certainly trying really hard here.
My main quibble, personally speaking, is the film never really steps out outside of the structural box. Popper's story is one of redemption. By dealing with his own past and stepping up to be the father he never had, Popper has the opportunity to change his fortune, but in order to soften his persona (so audiences wouldn't hate him, and so there's still a chance that his children and ex-wife will take him back), Popper isn't that bad of a guy. For example, his son has yet to reach a point of resentment or disappointment, and his ex-wife doesn't mind when he walks into her apartment without knocking. To me, if Popper has yet to fail hard or fully lose his way, the ultimate redemption means less.
Technically speaking, the film looks great. The Penguin performers are a combination of live action and CGI recreations. The real penguins required the film sets to be chilled to freezing temperatures and had a swimming pool in their
trailer habitat. The CGI birds look pretty good; other than a few moments, I generally had a tough time telling real from fake. Well done all around.
At the end of the day, 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' is a safe, studio made, family comedy film. It does what it sets out to do reasonably well, and features a great animal cast the kids will love (though I can understand if parents don't want "another penguin movie" -- as a bird lover, I'm always open for at least one more). That being said, I would guess most modern, cynical audiences won't find much to like here. In simplest terms, we'll call this one: good, not great.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Mr. Popper's Penguins' pops onto Blu-ray as part of a 3-disc set, which includes 1 BD50 with the high definition version of the film and all the special features, 1 DVD standard definition of the film, and 1 Digital Copy (also a DVD) for use with Window Media, PC, iTunes, Mac, iOS and Android portable media devices. There are no packaging or disc markings indicating Region locking. Forced (and thankfully skippable) trailers include Digital Copy, 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked', 'Marley & Me: The Puppy Years', and 'Tooth Fairy 2'.
As one expects from modern studio feature films, 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' proves itself to have a pretty and pleasing picture (sorry, I couldn't help). Sporting an AVC MPEG4 encode and framed at 1.85:1, this comedy film features oodles of dimension and detail in every scene. Skin texture, clothing, hair, sets, and cityscapes all look terrific. The film was shot on green screen enhanced soundstages and around New York City. Day or night, city images are crystal clear and noise free. Christmas time in the big apple looks as movie-magical as ever.
I'm not sure if this is an HD or a film production, but depending on the filmmaker intent of the scene (depth of field, etc.), 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' on Blu-ray can be picture window clear at times. Black levels are satisfyingly dark while shadow detail holds up nicely. There are no signs of any digital fiddling (other than the animated characters) and the source material is blemish free. My only really complaints were occasional softness and a shot or two where the skies over Manhattan were a bit over exposed. (this happened in both what I assume were actual locations and sound stages) Otherwise, this one's a winner.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with this 5.1 English DTS-HD MA soundtrack in terms of mistakes -- dynamic range is nice, dialogue and the orchestral score are clear -- this track is more perfunctory than powerful. I found the front center channel to be a hair louder than the right, left, and surround channels during the film's first third or so. This makes sense for the most part, considering the film's dialoge priorities. And in latter parts of the movie, dialog, music, and sound effects seemed more balanced.
Other than the above, the track is a generally successful, front heavy, comedy presentation. Penguin noise placement (as they venture in and out of frame) is nicely delineated and really supports the onscreen action. Dialogue is always perfectly clear. Atmospheric sound effects, like city noise, are subtle, but sound nice. Overall, this multi channel HD audio track does a fine job, but it's not really an auditory experience. It's a lot like watching a sitcom -- it works, but it's not outstanding. Funny enough, my favorite mix on the disc is the main menu.
Other audio options include English Descriptive Audio 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, and French 5.1 Dolby Digital. If you like to read your family comedies, you'll enjoy subtitles in Spanish or English SDH.
'Mr. Popper's Penguins' has a nice collection of behind the scenes footage, featurettes, commentaries, and even an original animated short film. Other than the commentary, nothing is quite in depth, but the kids might be interested in the real penguin material.
'Mr. Popper's Penguins' is a fun family film that will more than likely delight the kids more than the adults. It's a seen-it-before story, but it works, Jim Carrey delivers another manic performance, and the penguins (real and fake) are so damn cute, much can be forgiven. Fans of the film will enjoy this Blu-ray, which features a pretty picture, serviceable soundtrack, and decent amount of special features. If you've never seen it, I would say give this one a rent first to make sure Popper is proper and not too predictable for your preferences (sorry again... it's so addictive).