Who doesn’t love a movie about penguins? Especially obnoxiously cute ones that plague a person until he finally accepts them. That’s what this story is about, right?
A while back I heard of a script-writing rule where, on page 10, there should be some hint as to what the hero wants. I would like to go a step further and use the character prompt that I’ve learned: What do they want/What do they really want? This suggests that even the character may not know what he really wants by page 10, (which translates to ten minutes into the movie,) but the audience should get some hint. I have found as I’ve researched movies, that this ten minutes isn’t a hard and fast rule. However, certainly within the first act, stories often reveal the inner need to the audience without the character’s realization.
As a novel writer, I want to portray my characters as realistically as possible. Often, people don’t know what they really want. And if you want a believable character arc, you probably shouldn’t have them figure it out too soon, either.
In Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Tom Popper, played by Jim Carrey, is an obsessed businessman who has fractured his family because he was never there for them. (Haven’t we seen this story premise before? Liar, Liar perhaps?) This is ironic, because as we see in the first few minutes of the film, Popper’s father was never there for him, either. But he loved his son, keeping in touch as best he could via short wave radio and giving him really cool stuff from his adventures. At this point, we can see what Popper’s issue is, but does Popper?
Something happens that suggests Popper is on the cusp of self-discovery. No, it’s not when the penguin arrives from Popper’s deceased father. This moment does kick off Act 2, however. Popper’s ordinary world is about to be rocked. But, about 15:30 minutes in, Popper meets Mrs. Van Gundy played by Angela Lansbury, who owns Tavern on the Green, a restaurant in Manhattan. He is going to try to talk her out of her property for the firm for which he works. They approach a table near the window which she has had reserved for their meeting. He asks to have their conversation at another table. Why? We don’t know yet. I love that the writers set up a little mystery here.
During the course of their discussion, Mrs. Van Gundy tells him she doesn’t want to sell to just anyone. The staff is family to her. Popper says, “There is nothing more important than family.” This comment slips on by without much notice. However, the astute audience can see that Popper’s family, both the one in which he grew up and his present family are broken. Even Popper, himself, doesn’t realize what he’s just said. Mrs. Van Gundy presses him about his family, and we find he doesn’t want to talk about his father. Upon mention of his father, he glances toward the empty table where he and Mrs. Van Gundy were going to meet. Ah. We know something has happened at that table, and it probably has to do with why Popper went from a starry-eyed child who idolized his dad to the cynical adult who can barely talk about him.
Enter several more penguins due to a communication glitch, and Popper’s small problem has turned into a big one. He has to get rid of six penguins (and later eight as two have had eggs hatched.) During the course of the movie, Popper goes from trying to get rid of his new charges to fully accepting them. This could be in large part because the penguins are bringing his family together. His teen daughter doesn’t think he’s lame anymore, and his ex-wife is seeing a different side to him that she likes.
At approximately 55 minutes into the movie, he and his ex-wife have decided to have dinner together. The Poppers have their “date” at Tavern on the Green and are offered the same table where he had previously refused to sit. He again makes excuses not to sit there, and he opens up to his wife why he doesn’t want anything to do with that table. It seems, when Popper was a kid, his father would take the family to Tavern on the Green whenever he’d come to town and they’d sit at that table. It was the only time he could see his dad and where he received cool souvenirs from far off lands. Now, I thought something horrible had happened at that table, but I was pleasantly surprised when he tells his wife, “It’s actually a good memory. Sometimes they are the worst.”
This little insight and the hints dropped up to this point reveal the protagonist’s inner journey. We saw the first glimpse back in the beginning when he refused to sit at the table. Does he hate his dad? Not really, just disillusioned. He wants what any kid wants—to have his family together. (Of note: a scene prior to this shows him having dinner at his own table at home with the penguins. It’s chaotic, but totally comfortable for Popper because he is with his new family.)
As is the way with character arcs, the character must begin at one point and finish at another. Popper was pretty low before his penguin family moved in. His family was broken, his ex-wife was dating someone else, his teen daughter could barely be in the same room with him. He had, however managed to maintain a relationship with his son, which I find refreshing. There was one person who believed in him, just as he had believed in his own dad at that age. By the end, Popper’s family is whole again, and he even takes them to Tavern on the Green where he has reserved the dreaded Table. He no longer has to avoid it because he’s completed his character arc, and can make good memories with his family. He begins with a line that his dad had probably said to him many times. “I’m going on a trip, and I’m going to be gone a very long time.” His son looks dejected, just as Popper no doubt did every time he heard this from his father. However, he springs a surprise. He tells his family they are all going with him.
Where? Popper has arranged to return the penguins to their native Antarctica. What the Poppers witness is a huge family reunion as each penguin finds its own family unit they had left behind. What once was broken is now together again. And that is what this movie about penguins is all about.