Long-distance relationships are rough. And savvy, go-getting real estate developer Tom Popper knows a thing or two about them.
As a child, Tom played with foreign souvenirs and waited for his globe-trotting dad to contact him on the family's ham radio. But while Dad was forever chasing the next big thing in New Guinea (which he said was far better than the old one), Morocco, Samoa, Antarctica and everywhere in between, he was neglecting Tom, his most precious legacy. And after years of missed birthday parties and other I-wish-Dad-was-here milestones, Tom did what most sons tend to do when shown such an example: He became like his father.
Today, considering how often he's let them down, it's not surprising that Tom's estranged wife, Amanda, and kids, Janie and Billy, aren't exactly delighted with him. And Janie, who's in the throes of adolescent dating (whenever she isn't texting), is "95 pounds of C4 explosives on a hair trigger" sure to hiss at Tom when he offers advice. But when he inherits a penguin from his late father—with five more of the waddling birds inadvertently tagging along—life becomes more … buoyant. Wetter, icier, louder and more fish-laden, too, but at least more animated.
The flippered "snow rats," named Captain, Lovey, Stinky, Bitey, Loudy and Nimrod (each after its personality), soon worm their way into the family's heart. Unfortunately, keeping large, flightless sea birds in one's upscale NYC flat poses problems—even (especially?) after you transform the place into a sub-zero wonderland. A zoo official is hot on the penguins' tail feathers to place them in a viewing tank, and Tom's hands are full elsewhere, too. He's been tasked with acquiring the landmark Tavern on the Green from Mrs. Van Gundy—who accurately calls him a "sharp-tongued snake oil salesman." She won't sell the iconic building to anyone until she knows what the buyer is worth (his soul, not his bank account).
Tom's, in her opinion, isn't worth much.
Tom rediscovers his emotions through the disarmingly affectionate (and needy and grouchy) penguins. Ever one to brush off disappointment or pain, he gradually learns that it's OK to experience and express deep feeling. This translates into stronger bonds with his ex-wife and kids as he learns that relationships trump acquiring New York properties and staying late for board meetings. In a card, Tom's father tells him to hold on to Janie and Billy for as long as possible and apologizes for leaving him.
[Spoiler Warning] Gradually, Tom realizes that he can't tear Tavern on the Green down as planned—there are too many memories of his father there. Mrs. Van Gundy watches Tom's behavior and sees his impressive emotional growth. Tom and Amanda eventually rekindle their spark and decide to try again at their relationship.
It's a bit goofy in the way it's portrayed, but Tom does pray before a meal with the penguins, thanking God for the food and asking Him to use His mighty power to prevent the ice caps from melting. Dying is referred to as breaking through to the other side. Willing an egg to hatch, Tom says, "Total belief, total faith."
Tom refers to an older man's energy as "viagratality," a winking reference to sex and the little blue pill. He also uses the word "sexy" and quotes Beyoncé's song "Single Ladies." When talking of single women, Tom tells Janie that Martha Stewart is a powerful woman who sleeps with her dogs (which is just vague enough to earn a tentative double entendre warning). In a cold room, Tom indirectly refers to his erect nipples. Gonorrhea comes up in conversation when Tom and Amanda pretend to be infectious disease experts.
Janie asks what to do when unrequited love hits hard and a boy kisses someone else. As they mend fences, Tom and Amanda—who already has a new boyfriend—flirt. Lovey is just that, and it's said that he fathers several chicks.
When the zookeeper chases Tom, Tom gets the upper hand by binding the man's wrists with a long metal lasso-like tool and making him hit his own face. Tom is hit in the groin and head with soccer balls—landing him unconscious in the snow. He dangles from a balcony after being overcome by water when a penguin floods the bathroom. The penguins crash a cocktail party and cause minor mayhem as they slide down a wet hallway, knocking people and things over. Tom trips over a box, banging his shins. Folks fall on ice. A champagne cork launches, flying around a room. Bitey chomps on people's legs.
Crude or Profane Language
The s-word, almost used in reference to the penguins' poop, isn't fully said. "Freakin'" stands in for the more obscene word once or twice, and there are a couple of incomplete exclamations of "what the …?" We clearly hear one each of "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n" in song lyrics played during the closing credits. God's name is misused around 10 times. Tom calls his ex-wife a "buzz kill" in front of their children.
Drug and Alcohol Content
People drink champagne at a party. Tom pours some straight from the bottle into his mouth—then spews it out.
Other Negative Elements
Tom lies repeatedly about the birds being his and bribes a doorman to keep quiet when the man discovers his secret. He and others also lie to get out of other difficult situations—with little or no consequence. After the zookeeper confiscates the penguins from Tom's apartment, Tom breaks into the zoo to get them back. Tom makes a promise or two he can't keep.
Amanda's boyfriend is out of the picture with no explanation once Tom and Amanda decide to retry their relationship. Tom's neighbor rightfully complains about the mess and noise of penguins, but to no avail because Tom tends to think laws or even the need for common courtesies don't apply to him. Some of his business deals are shady. And his attitudes can be seen coming from his kids, too. Janie, in particular, can be pretty disrespectful to her dad.
Bird droppings get quite a bit of screen time. Captain, for example, "purposely" lets loose in Tom's face, and we see the "event" up close. Another penguin soils Tom's shoes. Later, Tom holds each bird above a toilet as they do their business. We see birds swirl around in a toilet or two. Stinky is the gassy one in the group, and he provides lots of evidence as a running gag.
Long-time fans of Richard and Florence Atwater's Mr. Popper's Penguins, the 1939 Newberry Honor book, might think the many liberties this contemporary film adaptation takes with a much-treasured story are about as appealing as eating raw sardines. And, it's true, the movie version certainly won't go down in box office history as an award-winning must-see. Nonetheless, it's likely that kids will still squawk to see the cute birds and Jim Carrey's gregarious goofiness.
There are some icebergs along the way that parents will want to navigate with their kids, including bathroom humor and a smattering of swears. But Popper's newfound love for his family and his Grinch-like discovery of the size of his own heart are still great and grin-worthy.
Echoes of Mr. Banks' epiphany in Mary Poppins are heard when Tom tells his bosses, "Some things you just can't afford to miss," explaining that years of skipping his children's soccer games or dance recitals have cost him dearly.
His emotional and relational growth, along with the realization that the world does not revolve around him are lessons that won't leave penguin fans out in the cold.