Jim Carrey as Mr. Popper
Carla Gugino as Amanda
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Van Gundy
Ophelia Lovibond as Pippi
Madeline Carroll as Janie
Clark Gregg as Nat Jones
Jeffrey Tambor as Mr. Gremmins
David Krumholtz as Kent
Philip Baker Hall as Franklin
Maxwell Perry Cotton as Billy
James Tupper as Rick
Dominic Chianese as Reader
William Charles Mitchell as Yates
Directed by Mark Waters
Real estate whiz Thomas Popper (Jim Carrey) has been trying to score a big deal when he learns his explorer father has died leaving him with six penguins to take care of, which forces him to take account of what’s important in his life.
While the thought of Jim Carrey cavorting on screen with a half-dozen penguins may seem like the type of experience that might make waterboarding sound like fun, there is enough laughs and heart in “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” to make up for some of the more ridiculous Carrey moments.
First, we flash back to Thomas Popper’s childhood as he grows up not really knowing his explorer father who he communicates via a HAM radio. Thirty years later, he’s a powerful businessman negotiating for real estate, living on his own but still keeping in touch with his ex-wife and kids. He doesn’t seem too distraught when he learns his father has passed away, but things get turned upside down when a crate holding a live penguin shows up at his door. It’s soon joined by five others and suddenly, Popper’s attempts at becoming a partner in the firm is taking a back seat to caring for the birds, who his kids immediately take a shine to.
By this point, even the biggest Jim Carrey fan has to be tiring of him producing the same type of hammy gags he’s been doing since he first appeared as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” and while some of that’s there, this is an older and surprisingly more subdued Carrey, one who lets the rest of the cast have their moments and doesn’t just turn the movie into one long routine.
A lot of that can be credited to director Mark Waters, someone who definitely has earned a bit of faith with some of the genius ideas he’s brought to even his weaker movies – for instance, casting Emma Stone and Michael Douglas in “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” In this case, he builds a strong cast of characters around Carrey to keep him grounded and makes sure they don’t go overboard with the reaction shots while surrounded by the physical humor of Carey and his avian scene-stealers. Carla Gugino is well-cast as Popper’s ex-wife, who he may still have a flame for, and the two young actors also bring a lot to the family scenes. For instance, the sub-story involving Popper’s teen daughter (Madeline Carroll from “Flipped”) liking a boy but not feeling her father can give her good advice leads to a few moments that are more touching than what we normally get in a family comedy.
Even so, the movie is really about the penguins, and it’s impossible to tell which ones are real and which are created with CG since the transitions are fairly seamless. And yeah, those penguins are really quite adorable, so much so that they easily steal every scene from their more famous star as they’re used in a lot of fun ways. There’s just something immensely enjoyable about watching a half dozen penguins sliding all around the spiral walkway at the Guggenheim Museum, and Waters really takes full advantage of the film’s New York setting. The fact that much of the plot involves the acquiring and saving of the Tavern on the Green which closed at the end of 2009 is quite commendable because it was such an institution. One does wonder why the film wasn’t saved for the holidays when it could fully benefit from the film’s wintry theme. If the movie isn’t cute enough with those six penguins, there’s a surprising twist that ups the “awww” factor even further.
What constantly threatens to ruin the movie is the amount of bathroom humor, whether it’s the chronic flatulence from a penguin nicknamed “Stinky” or the overuse of penguin doo jokes. It just seems like a far too easy way to get laughs when Carrey starts running aground; it’s great for kids, but it really takes away from enjoying the rest of it.
Outside of Popper’s immediate family, the other characters fall into typical family film stereotypes – quirky characters meant to add conflict and laughs but not offering much depth. Mr. Popper’s personal assistant Pippy talks in alliterative sentences for no particular reason, a device that quickly turns preposterous, while David Krumholtz plays a neighbor trying to get rid of Popper and having more ammo once he discovers the existence of the penguins. The movie starts losing a bit as it gets to the point where Popper has to confront a zookeeper who wants to take the penguins away “for their own protection,” played by Clark Gregg, and yet, Waters never loses sight of the family aspect to the story, which is what keeps it from being entirely disposable entertainment.
The Bottom Line:
Despite gags that fall flat and potty humor going for easy laughs from the kids, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” offers generally enjoyable and harmless family fun on par with the “Night at the Museum” movies. Much of that comes down to the adorable penguins who steal every scene, but when the movie works, it’s just as much despite as it is due to Carrey’s presence.