The popular children’s book Mr. Popper’s Penguins is about a poor family man who dreams of traveling the world and is instead gifted with the exotic but inconvenient souvenir of a group of penguins. But that storyline doesn’t fit with current family film standards, by which characters rarely dip below middle-class. So the movie version of Mr. Popper’s Penguins is refitted to warm the hearts of everyone from studio executives to CEOs: it’s about an insanely rich and successful man who reconnects with his family while remaining insanely rich and successful.
Jim Carrey plays Mr. Popper, a real estate wheeler-dealer who semi-neglects his children, although, in this innocuous movie, he’s never too much of a jerk. Carrey’s sharky overtures are halfhearted; stripped of his most manic overplaying, he no longer overwhelms his more grounded costars the way he did playing another, more genuinely delinquent father in Liar Liar.
Penguins also lacks the bravado of Carrey’s best physical comedy. Apart from some fleeting moments of slapstick, the talented comedian is reduced to coining listless imitation-Ace Ventura catchphrases like “Yeahbsolutely!” Carrey’s performance in last year’s dark comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris was his most liberated in years, even as his character spent much of the movie in prison; in Mr. Popper’s Penguins, he plays a free man, but the material feels more like jail-time.
This feeling begins with the penguins Mr. Popper inherits from his wayward explorer father, an idea that compounds the daddy issues in a movie with no shortage of them. Popper would rather concentrate on a business deal to acquire Central Park’s Tavern on the Green than penguin-sit, but decides to keep them in his Manhattan apartment when he realizes that his kids, Janie (Madeline Carroll) and Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) will spend more time there if they can play with the birds. Because Popper often seems both legitimately busy and legitimately caring, his family’s penguin-dependent affection feels a bit like emotional blackmail.
The penguins also allow Popper to reconnect with his ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino, typically radiant and underused). At this point, the movie becomes borderline irresponsible when the divorced parents rekindle romantic feelings: it’s a symptom of the film’s relentless fuzziness. Just replaying yet another bad-dad-makes-good storyline isn’t friendly enough. Any divorces, sad goodbyes or losses (like Popper’s firm’s plans to tear down Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that in real life has already closed) must be scrubbed clean and, when possible, reversed. The story is so desperate to find a proper villain in its fairy-tale version of New York that Clark Gregg must fill that role by playing, uh, an unethical zookeeper.
The director, Mark Waters, has made a few comedies, most notably Mean Girls, that spring from observations about human behavior and complicated relationships, rather than plain wish fulfillment, but Mr. Popper’s Penguins makes no such concessions to his human characters. Its reason for existing is to showcase those penguins. They’re cute enough, if sometimes overly effectsy: real penguins were reportedly used in some scenes, but many shots are clearly computer-generated.
More troubling, though, is the movie’s insistence, in the wake of March of the Penguins (a movie Popper references), on treating a semi-realistic group of animals as, essentially, little people, projecting human emotions, loyalties, and interests onto these helpless birds, right down to cutesy names and characteristics (including “Loudy” and, lest you were concerned that there might only be one or two scenes of penguin bodily functions, “Stinky”). At least they don’t talk.
With the penguins’ help, Popper learns those inevitable lessons about responsibility and valuing family over money, sort of. He doesn’t actually leave his soulless position at the real estate firm. This decision might be understood as a rebuke to family movies that insist parents should, if at all possible, quit their jobs and spend all waking hours attending to their children. The Poppers will still have bills to pay, especially since they want to take penguin-visiting vacations to Antarctica. But with this plot turn, it appears the movie wants to buy its real estate and restore it, too.