Jim Carrey and Penguins. It does not get any better. Think Beethoven but with Penguins. Try to spot the difference between the CGI penguins and the real ones. Grab the popcorn. As you can surmise from the title, the film details Mr Popper who is played by Jim Carrey and his hijinks with the penguin his father leaves him. Mr Popper is not enamoured initially with his father’s gift due to the stress and work involved in taking care of the penguin and due to a miscommunication ends up with several unwanted penguins. As is often the case with unwanted pets, the adults are too stressed to take care of and desire pets, but the children of the family convince them otherwise. The hammy villain tries to steal Mr Popper’s penguins for his nefarious ends but as is typical, he is thwarted by the Popper family who declare the penguins ‘a family’ and inseparable.
Mr. Popper’s Penguin is a film meeting all the hallmarks of a comedy defined here as “make ’em laugh” films designed to elicit laughter from the audience. Comedies are light-hearted dramas, crafted to amuse, entertain, and provoke enjoyment.’ The characters in the film are mostly well-rounded and ‘realistic.’ Occasionally Jim Carrey’s Mr Popper veers into the surreal and absurd as is his wont but this is used sparingly and is used when Mr Popper displays a changing passion for the penguins. The film reveals itself as a family film in which the central character Mr Popper struggles to deal with his fathers’ childhood absence and the effects it has on him. Helping to underpin the film’s action and comedy is fast-paced music typically used to underscore an action or event occurring on-screen. The film employs various editing techniques such as ‘cutting on action’ shots which serve to heighten the tension Popper feels between his responsibilities to his family and job and the demands of the penguins.
‘It’s a live penguin…He sent me a live penguin’
Penguins are so ubiquitous in popular culture that every individual possesses a preconceived idea of what they are. Viewers immediately feel a kinship to penguins that other animals such as wasps lack. Leane and Pfenningwerth note that Penguins come with a ‘perceived likeness to humans: as flightless birds that stand upright, with arm-like flippers, they are particularly readily anthropomorphised.’This anthropomorphising of penguins is evident throughout Mr. Popper’s Penguins as they are characterised as intelligent as the humans and likeable from the get-go. In Figure Three Mr Popper has come to realise that his ‘stuffed’ gift from his father is in fact a live penguin. His first reaction is to touch the animal and hold it, suggesting that he does not feel threatened by the animal at all and views the animal as a substitute child to lavish his affections upon. The animal lets out a little sound when Popper touches it much like a dog’s squeaky toy. This further paints the penguin as friendly. Mr Popper’s personality at this point has only been revealed to the viewer as a real estate developer estranged from his wife and children and the recent bereavement of his father. So, his interaction with the penguin serves to illuminate a more playful and kind personality and sets him up as the film’s protagonist. Thus his reaction to the animal is used to generate an ‘emotional response’ in the viewer in conjunction with the grandiose film score. The film wants Mr Popper to react positively to the animal and by extension the viewer also. The use of the penguins is effective as an emotive device as media containing animals such as news ‘news about animals is designed to have emotional appeal, to arouse our sympathies, curiosity or fascination.’ Indeed, the treatment or perceived mistreatment of animals causes public outrage in instances such as Geronimo the Alpaca who became a cause célebré amongst certain individuals.
The predetermined love for penguins drives their interactions with the humans in the film and underpins the family elements. Leela’s quote from Futurama serves best to illustrate how the film presents the penguins ‘Aww, they’re so cute! They’re like if puppies and kittens could have babies!.’ The film eschews voiceovers and simply shows the viewer the action on the screen. Because of this direct focus on the penguins themselves, we get to see the penguins acting in a way that the human characters in the film do not. Mr Popper is oblivious to the amount of carnage the penguins wreak upon his home but the viewer is not. This serves to heighten the comedic aspect of the film and ensures the penguins are played humorously.
The penguins subvert our expectations as they treat Popper’s home with a familiarity that only those in a close and intimate relationship with him would. The director employs slow-moving camera movements to track the then-unnamed animal through his exploits. The animal floods Popper’s apartment illustrating the power struggle between animal and human with the penguin more than not coming out dominant over the clumsy and careless humans. Additionally, the director in an unusual turn for a family film shows the penguin rather humorously defecating on Mr Popper. This is played in a slapstick way presumably aimed at any potential children watching blurring the line between family film and farce.
The director refers to the penguins as ‘barely controlled chaos’ indicating the force of nature animals in film can be. The film instils the animals with their own unique personalities and allows the viewer to view them as unique individuals, not as a collective of penguins. The penguins stand in stark contrast to Mr Popper as they are immediately exciting and dynamic to contrast his sternness. The penguins refuse to conform to Popper’s rules and man-made laws. They then possess a sense of freedom Popper can never hope to achieve. He can assert his agency and dominance over them, but the animals completely disregard it.
‘He’s got a fish’
The film employs various tropes that separate it from a standard family film. The scene in which Popper and his family confront Nat Jones echoes the showdown often found in the western films of Sergio Leone such as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Jim Carrey is a noted Clint Eastwood fan who appeared in The Dead Pool, A Clint Eastwood film. Although here he thankfully has not dialled the acting up to 11; he has employed some of his trademark facial contortions but sparingly. The clip uses a medium-length shot that slowly pans out as each character takes several steps backwards from the other. Like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly the scene uses close-ups of the film’s key character with quick cuts to the penguins. The music swells up allowing the tension over the penguins to build, creating a frenetic pace for the viewer. The inclusion of a ‘western’ trope serves to enhance the scene itself whilst being a nod to potential adult viewers of the film who may be familiar with Western films. Plus, it makes what could be a standard scene and injects a little razzmatazz in. The film at this point has made Mr Popper mature and changed his stance towards animals; he now nurtures and cares for the penguins as though they are his children. The penguins have served to move the characterisation of Popper forward in sync with the audience’s expectations and you’ll be pleased when the film’s Disneyesque villain gets his comeuppance. The power of animals then is a positive one in the film as they have broken down Mr Popper’s tough outer exterior and demonstrated his ability to change and grow. The dialogue here veers into the self-aware. This is best exemplified by the line ‘He’s got a fish’ offering a humorous take on the usual violent seriousness of showdowns. It also pays homage to what I deem Jim Carrey’s best film which is Dumb and Dumber. Especially, the fantasy sequence in which Lloyd fantasises about shooting Mary’s husband. You know the scene. ‘He’s Got a Gun.’ Poor Lloyd.
The charm of the penguins is best exemplified when they watch and imitate Charlie Chaplin. The penguins possess high intelligence, and it is they who press the remote continuously looking for something to view. The camera work here is intimate as it tracks the penguins’ every action. The clear focus on the penguins illustrates their sheer enjoyment of the film on TV. They are capable of more than just running amok in Popper’s house or the outdoors they are allowed to be more than objects for the viewer’s gaze. Most importantly, ‘Mark Waters was very interested in making sure that whatever we made the penguins do when they did it they weren’t doing what a penguin couldn’t do.’ The animals are more than unwanted pets and the film wants us to care for their wellbeing. The film appreciates penguins. Leave it to Jim Carrey to make a family film more enjoyable. The constant focus and return to the penguins remind us that animals are the star of the film. Jim Carrey states how he tried to ‘join their energy’ when acting opposite them.
Uh oh. The animals are now out of the domestic sphere. Mr Popper has failed to confine the animals to his home. Now the chaos begins. Popper vs the penguins. I’m rooting for the penguins if I’m being honest. In the scene The Mise-en-Scene here is important. The camera zooms into the penguin’s face who starts squawking, almost scoffing at Popper’s inability to control them. The camera then zooms into Popper’s face and as we can see, he is not too happy about their sneaky behaviour. They meet each other’s eyes through a ‘mutual gaze’ which both human-animal know exactly how to interpret as do potential viewers. Their gazes and reactions are ‘comprehensible for both parties’ which demonstrates how enmeshed in each other’s lives animals and humans are. The audience is aware of the pending disorder that will occur if the penguins are left unsupervised, but the other human characters sans Popper are not. The film makes us question whether our treatment of animals whether it be a dog, cat or indeed a penguin is fair. After all, the penguins are only misbehaving in the opinion of the human characters; not themselves. The humans are imposing on the penguins; the humans are upset about any encroachment on their habits. Which is ludicrous as They are merely exercising their agency. The penguins are a handful for Mr Popper on top of his own human family. The film shows us that pet keeping is not to be undertaken lightly.
The most important elements of the film analysis are the focus on the family; whether; that is between Mr Popper and his family or the penguins as his extended family. The director has carefully and deftly given the viewer cause to think about the penguins as more than cute and remote objects that most viewers will only encounter from afar whether that is on Television or in a zoo. We as humans have a responsibility to think wider than our immediate surroundings to think of the true impact we have on the planet and its inhabitants.
The film demonstrates that human-animal relationships are complex and involve ebbs and flows. It examines how animals are treated or mistreated by humans and invites the viewer to examine their relationships with animals also. Furthermore, it shows that animals are not ‘static’ ornamental objects for the voyeuristic individual to gawp at and prod. The film asks us to remember animals are our companions and should not be fought over or abused by people, especially for petty reasons.
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 Tim Dirks, ‘Comedy Films’, Filmsite, [n.d.] <https://www.filmsite.org/comedyfilms.html> [accessed 15 January 2023].
 Elizabeth Leane and Stephanie Pfennigwerth, ‘Marching on Thin Ice: The Politics of Penguin Films’, in Considering Animals : Contemporary Studies in Human-Animal Relations, ed. by Carol Freeman and others (Farnham: Taylor & Francis Group, 2011), pp. 29-40 (p. 30). ProQuest Ebook Central.
 Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film, (London: Reaktion Books Limited, 2004), p. 11. ProQuest Ebook Central.
 Claire Molloy, Popular Media and Animals, (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011), p. 2. ProQuest Ebook Central.
 BBC, ‘Geronimo the alpaca: Protesters march on Downing Street’, BBC, 2021 <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-58143100> [accessed 15 January 2023].
 IMDB, ‘Futurama: The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz’, IMDB, [n.d.] <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0584452/?ref_=tt_ch> [accessed 15 January 2023].
 20th Century Studios India, Mr. Popper’s Penguins – Training the Penguins, online video recording, YouTube, 20 June 2011, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lItQbuLBFpg> [accessed 15 January 2023].
 Onn jack, Jim Carrey loves Clint Eastwood, online video recording, YouTube, 12 July 2012, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajdsOR_MNB0> [accessed 15 January 2023].
 Christian Bates, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – The Final Duel (1966 HD), online video recording, YouTube, 10 June 2013, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJCSNIl2Pls> [accessed 15 January 2023].
 Ian Failes, ‘Populating Mr. Popper’s Penguins’, FXguide, 2011 <https://www.fxguide.com/fxfeatured/populating-mr-poppers-penguins> [accessed 15 January 2023].
 Empire Magazine, Jim Carrey On Mr Popper’s Penguins, online video recording, YouTube, 4 August 2011, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1ryAByQLGQ> [accessed 15 January 2023].
 Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film, (London: Reaktion Books Limited, 2004), p. 32. ProQuest Ebook Central.
 Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film, p. 32