With “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”—a misguided cross between “Liar Liar” and “Ace Ventura”—Jim Carrey descends to the sort of infantile family comedy inhabited of late by Eddie Murphy. The picture, loosely based on a 1938 book by Florence and Richard Atwater, is a cutesy, by-the-numbers mixture of slapstick and sentiment, about a hard-hearted workaholic who learns what’s really important—his ex-wife and kids, of course—through the intervention of six rambunctious penguins. Maybe the book was charming, but the movie isn’t so much silly as stupid.
Carrey plays Tom Popper, a smarmy NYC real-estate guy angling for a partnership at his high-flying firm headed by Franklin (Philip Baker Hall), Reader (Dominic Chianese) and Yates (William C. Mitchell). The owners give him one final assignment: to persuade Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury), owner of Central Park’s Tavern on the Green, to sell them the iconic restaurant so that they can tear it down and build a skyscraper in its place.
Popper tries all his shady tricks, but the genteel old lady turns him down. She wants to sell, it seems, only to the right sort of person—one with old-fashioned family values. At the same time he receives an inheritance from his explorer father, who’d largely ignored him (as we see in a prologue) as he was growing up—those six penguins. And though he initially tries to dispose of the uncontrollable creatures, which pretty much take over his starkly modern apartment, he relents when his little son Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) and surly teen daughter Janie (Madeline Carroll) take such a liking to them that he has to change his plans. Of course the penguins cause all sorts of trouble for him, effectively taking over his life and ruining his career in the process. But they bring him together not just with his kids, but his ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino) too.
“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” doesn’t differ much from what passes for family entertainment nowadays. It’s barely ten minutes in before Carrey gets hit in the crotch with a soccer ball kicked by his son. And it’s not long after that bird poop makes its initial appearance. Thankfully that sort of thing isn’t too frequent later on, but it’s replaced by lots of messy comic action as the critters make mischief—in one instance, rather inexplicably, at a big society function at the Guggenheim (not the first time the museum’s been used in such a disreputable fashion in movies)—and even more treacle as Popper bonds with the penguins and his family.
The ancillary plot threads are equally abysmal. One involves Nat Jones (Clark Gregg), a shady zoo official who’s after the penguins for his own purposes, leading to a big final chase. Another periodically brings on Popper’s assistant Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), whose big joke is that she constantly peppers her conversation with alliterative “p’s.” A third drags in Kent (David Krumholtz), a nasty neighbor who objects to Tom’s pets and doorman Rick (James Tupper) who’s willing to overlook them if properly paid off. Some of these bits might have worked if director Mark Waters had delivered them with any pizzazz, but all he brings to the party is a rhythm that’s strictly sitcom-grade.
Carrey’s well above that level, of course, but he’s trying so hard here that it’s almost painful to watch. And while the penguins—an amalgam of real animals and CGI, course—are fine, all the other humans are bland apart from Lansbury, whose physical frailty leaves little room for comic energy. The worst-used people in the cast are doubtlessly Gregg, Krumholtz, Hall, Chianese and Mitchell, who are all stuck in roles that wouldn’t be out of place in Disney cable fare.
The only really good thing about this sappy flick is that unlike “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” the critters in it don’t sing (though they do make quite a racket). But when a movie’s greatest virtue is one of omission, that’s hardly a good sign. Small children might have a good time, but it’s pretty certain that most everyone else will be happy to see these penguins march away posthaste.