In this rather loose adaptation of the 1938 children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mr. Popper’s Penguins features Jim Carrey doing his best Jimmy Stewart; and really, he doesn’t do that badly. In fact, he’s rather charming in a very reeled-in capacity, which is pretty damn refreshing for an undeniably gifted comic who’s fallen into the Mr. Try Too Hard pitfall of revamping his career of late. Still, this adaptation differs significantly from the book, but the only similarities that audiences will even care about are the big ones contained within the title; that is, Popper and his penguins are indeed front and center, and the protagonist learns the value of family while also amusing very young kiddies in the process. With his role, Carrey successfully sells himself in a children’s movie without simultaneously scaring the crap out the target audience like he did in A Christmas Carol. Most importantly at this stage in his career, Carrey has finally realized that some performances are most valuable when they leave some room for his co-stars to do their thing too. In this case, Carrey’s up against a flock of real penguins and some CGI equivalents as well; and strangely, the effects are nearly seamless and certainly come off much better than that horrid Green Lantern costuming. So there.
Directed by Mark Waters (Freaky Friday; Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; Mean Girls), who paints his story upon the tableau of New York City with featured tourist stops including the Guggenheim Museum, the Flat Iron Building, and (naturally) Central Park, the cinematic Popper is no longer a poor house painter like his literary counterpart. Instead, this Popper is a highly successful real-estate tycoon, who never grew out of his daddy issues after being virtually abandoned by his explorer father. In his adult life, Popper ignores his own young children, Janie (Madeline Carroll) and Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton). Things begin to change, however, for when Popper’s father dies, he bequeaths his beloved penguins to Popper, who attempts to rid himself of the beasts, but they eventually take over his life. In the process, the penguins help Popper rekindle his relationship with his own kids, but the tradeoff is that he loses his shrewd business acumen. Of course, this leads to a valuable lesson of Popper reevaluating the important things in life. It sounds predictable, and it is, for there’s not a single surprise in the whole damn movie except for Carrey himself, who sells it pretty well even if this character is a bit like the ones from Liar, Liar and Yes Man.
Inevitably, the filmmakers wade through the obligatory rounds of bodily functions involving the penguins themselves as well as Carrey getting hit in the nuts. If nothing else here, the movie is proof that Carrey will still gamely do anything. However, he is very emotionally genuine here and might just win over those audience members who appreciate a slightly kinder, gentler Carrey, who mercifully and judiciously tones down certain aspects of his performance because — let’s face it — these penguins are goofy enough. They quite enjoy watching Charlie Chaplin movies, which sort of makes up for the scene where Carrey dances with them to the tune of “Ice Ice Baby.” And yes, I did experience flashbacks of Carrey’s “In Living Color” parody, “White White Baby.” Strange, that.
Oddly, this movie has been released as a summer family picture instead of during the holiday season, where the winter wonderland scenes would’ve made more sense, commercially speaking. In addition, there is the matter of an entirely wasted Carla Gugino, who abandons her usual dose of va va voom to play Popper’s exasperated and estranged wife, Amanda. The story also gets bogged down quite a bit in the form of a few unnecessary obstacles — a nefarious zookeeper played by Clark Gregg and Popper’s neighbor played by David Krumholtz — that distract from the penguins themselves and their unwitting ringleader’s transformation. If the movie would’ve taken out those distractions and let the magic unfold in a more believable manner, the heartwarming, family-associated stuff wouldn’t have felt so crammed into the picture towards the end. Then again, it’s not an insufferable experience by any means, thanks to a pretty marvelous turn by Carrey. Besides, this movie could easily have been a lot worse, say if Eddie Murphy or Brendan Fraser had starred. Small mercies, folks.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.