Mr. Popper's Penguins: Film Review

20th Century Fox
Jim Carrey and six penguins compete for laughs in a good-natured family comedy.

The six penguins cast in this amiable Fox family comedy steal the movie — along with any fish they can find — although the film’s star, Jim Carrey, does manage very nicely to hold his own.

If Disney’s 101 Dalmatians gets blamed for many youngsters pleading for parents to get them what many dog experts consider a very demanding pet, then Fox will now have to shoulder its responsibility for children begging for pet penguins. For most youngsters who see the studio’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins will certainly want to have one of these mischievous birds. The six penguins cast in this amiable family comedy steal the movie -- along with any fish they can find -- although the film’s star, Jim Carrey, does manage to hold his own. Barely.

The only question is: How many youngsters are we talking about? With Disney’s Cars 2 a week away, the film has just days to draw in family audiences and test how much of an impact Carrey still has at the box office. Fox can expect a middling performance although you can’t discount the allure of penguins following March of the Penguins and Happy Feet.

For the record, these are not the Emperor penguins from those films but rather Gentoo penguins. Make that highly trained Gentoo penguins that force their human co-stars to work on 40-degree sets and need constant fish to perform.

The film from director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) encourages viewers to think of the tuxedo birds as silent-movie comics. They constantly watch Charlie Chaplin movies on TV, then imitate his acrobatic pratfalls and slapstick as they bounce around Carrey’s lavish Park Avenue apartment. There are certain stunts, of course, even a Gentoo can’t reliably perform so CG birds are substituted seamlessly and frequently into the action.

Sean Anders & John Morris and Jared Stern developed the screenplay from a 1938 novel by the husband and wife team of Richard and Florence Atwater. Much has been changed in this update including the need for the penguins to redeem the film’s hero.

Trouble is Tom Popper isn’t really a bad dude. Sure he’s divorced, but rather amicably from Amanda (Carla Gugino) and he’s a decent, caring father. Oh sure, he doesn’t completely understand daughter Janie’s (Madeline Carroll) continual boyfriend problems, but then again when she launches into the latest b.f. crisis, no one does.

Certainly her younger brother Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) thinks dad is swell. He does work for an aggressive Manhattan real estate firm but these are hardly capitalist monsters. The owners just want to buy the venerable Tavern on the Green in Central Park to tear it down to build God-only-knows-what. This is a subplot that is hardly worth the bother other than to bring in the equally venerable Angela Lansbury into the film as the restaurant’s owner.

The penguins enter Mr. Popper’s life as a final gift from his peripatetic father, a rolling stone that visited every corner of the globe except his own home. The father means to reinforce the importance of family on his son -- an idea he evidently embraced very late in life -- through these loving and loyal birds.

Certainly his own children better appreciate dad now that joint-custody visits entail romping with these comical birds, albeit in an apartment kept near freezing and full of dead fish.

So the movie clears a lot of space for the birds to caper all over the 3,200-square-foot apartment and around Manhattan when they go out. This includes water sliding down the famous spiraling ramp of the Guggenheim Museum. (No doubt, this was mostly if not entirely accomplished with CG birds.)

The weakness throughout is a story where subplots never really add up to much. These include the mercenary apartment building receptionist (Desmin Borges), a nosy neighbor (David Krumholtz), a mildly villainous zoo keeper (Clark Gregg) and Popper’s perky assistant Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), who speaks alliterately with a fondness for the letter “p,” a peculiar and perturbing penchant that provokes audience exasperation pretty quickly.

The movie even strands Lansbury with an inconsequential role of a rich snob who declares the 1992 Krug Champagne a “ghastly vintage” when in fact it’s a spectacular one.

Credit Carrey for finding funny and silly ways to clown around with his avian co-stars. Thankfully, he doesn’t revert to the Ace Ventura of his younger years. His are an older man’s skillful muggings and slapstick, using word deployments — “Y’absolutely!” he always answers in the affirmative — and a lanky body to tweak the comedy. He’s still fun to watch and has gotten over his need to push for jokes and gags where none exists.

Waters keeps things moving briskly through the slumps in the script to get back to penguin antics a swiftly as possible. Production values are glossy as the film delivers a fairy-tale New York where penguins can romp without anyone thinking this is in any way odd. Well, other than those big-buck donors at the Guggenheim charity reception.

Opens: June 17 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Davis Entertainment
Cast: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Angela Lansbury, Ophelia Lovibond, Madeline Carroll, Clark Gregg, Jeffrey Tambor, David Krumholtz, Philip Baker Hall
Director: Mark Waters
Screenwriter: Sean Anders, John Morris, Jared Stern
Based on the novel by: Richard Atwater, Florence Atwater
Producers: John Davis
Executive producers: Derek Dauchy, Joel Gotler, Jessica Tuchinsky, Mark Waters
Director of photography: Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: Stuart Wurtzel
Music: Rolfe Kent
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Editor: Bruce Green
PG rating, 94 minutes