Some movies you watch in the theater because they are made for the big screen, and some you watch because you got free tickets from an aunt you see just once a year. Even if Mr. Popper’s Penguins isn’t the best excuse for an adult dinner date, it’s a fun, inoffensive choice for a family night in. An adaptation of the children’s classic by Richard and Florence Atwater, I would have preferred a story that hewed more closely to the book, which centers around a poor father who must accommodate his living quarters to a growing family of penguins. Instead, it borrows from an overused formula about a financially successful but morally and emotionally bankrupt middle-aged man who is forced to reevaluate his priorities after an unwanted intrusion – six Gentoo penguins – into his life.
Jim Carrey’s elasticity is no longer a box office draw, and exotic animals, whether real, CGI, or both as in this case, seem to be a staple of every other family movie, but the details are enough to keep this adventure afloat. Director Mark Waters doesn’t get too carried away and knows how to both tame his lead actor and infuse the right amount of fantasy into the project. Mr. Popper’s penguins, for example, get to slide around the Guggenheim while he transforms his cavernous penthouse into a winter wonderland with nary a burst pipe. At the same time, Carrey reigns in his impulse to let his rubber-faced contortions overwhelm the film, though he still manages plenty of onscreen mugging. The result is a wistful, secretly sensitive family man who nevertheless must contend with the demands of his job as a real estate developer. Mr. Popper’s latest project is procuring Central Park’s historic Tavern on the Green, a restaurant he is reluctant to see torn down for personal reasons. If he convinces its owner (Angela Lansbury) to sell, however, he’ll be promoted to partner.
While kids may not have strong feelings about the ethics of redevelopment plans, they may be trained on other enemies that imperil the Poppers’ expanded family. A nosy neighbor (David Krumholtz) threatens to uncover their secret and a zookeeper (Clark Gregg) is eager to expand his collection. The chubby, waddling birds that Mr. Popper inherits from his explorer father are likely to be the biggest draw though. This is no March of the Penguins, but the little tuxedo-ed creatures press enough buttons to win over children under age 12, and adults who enjoy cat videos and pandacams. I’ll admit that sharing a bed with six snoozing penguins sounds like a cozy plan, at least until they start squawking like possessed vuvuzelas. For all its charm, the film obliges with some toilet humor; Mr. Popper discovers the best way to keep his apartment poop-free is to literally squeeze the shit out of the little guys while holding them over the loo.
The film’s not crass though and get by fine on normal family dynamics. Although there are cracks in Mr. and Mrs. Popper’s relationship and he has some trouble bonding with his children, they all show that a little civility goes a long way. Even Mr. Popper, who has faded memories of his loving father, has a clear road map to recovering his soul; it’s just a matter of deciding to follow it.
Prod: John Davis
Dir: Mark Waters
Writer: Sean Anders, John Morris, Jared Stern
Cast: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Angela Lansbury, Ophelia Lovibond, Madeline Carroll, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Clark Gregg, Philip Baker Hall, Dominic Chianese, William Charles Mitchell, Desmin Borges, David Krumholtz, James Tupper
Time: 94 min
Country: United States