Loosely based on Florence Atwater’s 1938 children’s book of the same name, Mr. Popper’s Penguins never completely gels. But that doesn’t stop Jim Carrey from using everything in his arsenal of comic physicality to keep his audience entertained. A Jimmy Stewart impersonation and a few Charlie Chaplin duck-walk steps go a long way.
Carrey’s Tom Popper is an exceptionally successful real estate developer living in a high-rise Manhattan apartment. Divorced from his wife Amanda (Carla Gugino), Tom spends every other weekend with the couple’s children, Janie and Billy. Tom’s career priority –– becoming a partner at his company –– takes a U-turn after he inherits six penguins from his recently deceased dad. Vying for his attention are his attempts to close a deal on Central Park’s Tavern on the Green from Angela Lansbury’s character, Mrs. Van Gundy, and the penguins, which he promises to let Billy keep as a birthday present. The penguins’ individual personalities don’t go much beyond representative names like “Lovey,” “Bitey,” and “Stinky.” Still, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is an adequate family film. Its light comic aspirations are exemplified by Mr. Popper’s perky secretary Pippi (nicely played by Ophelia Lovibond) and her peculiar proclivity for the persistent practice of alliteration pertaining to the letter p.
A sentimental opening sequence introduces us to the child version of Carrey’s character, whom his absent dad calls “Tippy Toe” during their radio transmissions. Tippy Toe and his father share their nightly conversations with a sense of wonder about the faraway places the senior Popper is visiting at the time. Cut to the adult Tommy living a successful but unfulfilled life. He has changed from a curious boy into a cynical executioner of real estate deals. With his trusty assistant Pippi beside him Popper closes a deal on Manhattan’s famed Flat Iron building by convincing Jeffrey Tambor’s character Mr. Gremmins that the time has come for him to pursue his dreams of sailing around the world. It’s one of the film’s best scenes. Tom and Pippi conjure up a vision of sailing excitement for Mr. Gremmins with the aid of office props. Carrey splashes water in Gremmins’ face while Pippi aims a fan at him. Mr. Popper is happiest when he’s drawing on his mind’s eye to close an expensive deal. He doesn’t have a nurturing bone in his body.
The arrival of the penguins changes him, if only because his children and ex-wife guilt him into a mindset of caring for the odd little creatures as a way of winning back the family’s trust. The filmmakers make the time-honored mistake of going too far with animal fart and poop humor, and it takes away from the hoped-for effect of endearing Mr. Popper, and the audience, to the waddling animals. You probably won’t come away from the movie with any newfound appreciation for penguins, but you’ll get what you came for from Jim Carrey.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Starring Jim Carrey and Carla Gugino. Directed by Mark Waters. Written by Sean Anders, John Morris, and Jared Stern, based on Florence and Richard Atwater’s novel. Rated PG.
This article originally appeared in City Pulse.