Having done Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch, Jim Carrey once again plays a cynical old grouch taken on a journey of salvation by cute tykes. This time, with penguins.
Purists might be disappointed that Mr. Popper's Penguins has ditched the performing birds storyline of the children's favorite in favor of the familiar "workaholic dad drifting away from his kids" template that is more relatable for movie studio production executives.
The film is just another slice off a very stale loaf, but it's earnest and benign. It's sometimes funny and contains no ingredients that are bad for you, unless you are allergic to sap.
Carrey's Tom Popper is a fast-rising New York City real estate wheeler-dealer one promotion away from the corner office. His climb to the top has distanced him from his ex-wife and two kids who could have stepped out of television commercials. He adores them and maintains both households in mega-affluent style, but where nonfinancial obligations are concerned he hasn't a clue. When he tries to advise his teenage daughter on the school dance snub that threatens to ruin her whole entire life forever, she is thoroughly mortified at his meddling. He's really not to blame, though. His own dad was an explorer forever off adventuring throughout little Tom's childhood.
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When cartons of penguins arrive at his penthouse door, a bequest from his late father, the famously loyal birds set Popper on a path to redemption that's approximately 200 pratfalls and sentimental moments long. Popper learns Big Life Lessons as he watches the birds bond and breed. His kids delight in his waddling sidekicks, they clamor to do overnights at Dad's penthouse apartment, and it's not long before Popper's ex (Carla Gugino) jumps atop him at an ice rink as if it were mating season in the Antarctic. In this film, saying "I love you" solves every problem short of global warming.
Carrey is at his best in early scenes with a wicked glint in his eye. He works his crafty, fast-talking ways to bilk property owners out of their buildings and con his business partners into offering him a seat on the board, provided he can scoop up Central Park's landmark restaurant, Tavern on the Green. As the plot gears begin to grind and he's softened by his squawking, belly-flopping aviary's antics, the film loses its steam. Angela Lansbury plays the Tavern's owner, who will only sell to a new owner with solid family values. You shouldn't need a diagram to know how things will work out.
The special effects are fine, with actors and computer-generated penguins interacting plausibly. It's the film's view of real life that seems denatured and phony. The images are big, empty, and lifeless, the very wintertime snow on the streets looks as if it was being rented by the props department.
Carrey always is watchable, but I prefer him manic and mugging, not safe, sentimental, and soggy.
MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS
Directed by Mark Waters. Written by Sean Anders and John Morris. A 20th Century Fox Film, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, and Fox Theatre. Rated PG for mild rude humor and some language. Running time: 95 minutes.
Critic's rating: **
Mr. Popper ..........Jim Carrey
Amanda .......... Carla Gugino
Mrs. Van Gundy .......... Angela Lansbury