A go-go businessman is forced to get some work-life balance when he inherits a box of penguins in Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a movie that is basically Liar Liar but with penguins instead of “the truth.”
I’ll give penguins this: they are cuter and offer more poop-joke opportunities than The Truth.
Mr. Popper (Jim Carrey), called Popper by pretty much everybody including his kids, is a ruthless real estate developer in New York City. While his name suggests some whimsy, the only thing whimsical about Popper now is his assistant, Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), who peppers her paragraphs with popping “P”s. Otherwise, his sterile (and totally lovely) modern apartment, free of kids except on alternate weekends, is like his life — all business. If he still has fondness for his ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino), Popper hides it, even from his kids, teenaged Janie (Madeline Carroll) and younger brother Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton).
But Popper’s life wasn’t always such. As a young boy, he followed the adventures of his world-traveling dad via short wave radio. He was “Tippy Toes” and his dad was “Bald Eagle” and as his father chased big discoveries around the world, the young Popper grew to miss his father more and more, with only souvenirs from around the world to comfort him.
Modern-day Popper gets word from his attorney that his father has died and, as his inheritance, he’ll be receiving one last souvenir. When the box comes, Popper opens it and finds what he thinks is a stuffed penguin. But it turns out that Captain, as the penguin is called, is very much alive. And when Popper comes home from work, having left Captain in some cold water in the tub, he also learns that Captain can work a faucet — and, voilà, we have high-jinks.
Attempts to send Captain back result in the arrival of five more penguins at Popper’s pad. And, naturally, this is the worst possible time for such shenanigans — Popper is trying to convince Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury) to sell the Tavern on the Green to his company, a feat which, if he pulls it off, will land Popper a big promotion.
At first, Popper wants nothing more than to get rid of the penguins. But his children take to them and suddenly even his ex-wife seems impressed with him. So when zoo official Nat Jones (Clark Gregg) shows up to take the penguins, Popper isn’t so eager to get rid of these black-and-white tickets to his children’s good graces.
Delighted with the interest Popper’s children suddenly have in spending time with him and enchanted by the penguin family that starts to emerge (they all have personalities; some of them lay eggs), Popper starts to become genuinely devoted to his penguins (not just as a means to the end of looking like a good dad). He lowers the temperature in his apartment, eventually opening all doors and windows so snow drifts in. And when one of the eggs doesn’t hatch at the same time as the others, he begins to put all his efforts into warming and protecting the egg. If you take his behavior outside the realm of broad comedy, Popper goes nuts and Carrey plays this with a kind of earnestness that moves the character a step beyond the standard wounded-slickster-turned-loving-family-guy set-up standard in a movie like this. In spite of all the penguin poops and farts and general wackiness, there is more going on with Popper than just the rubber-faced reaction. Not a lot more but, you know, slightly more. Cardboard cutout but with slightly rounded edges, giving the appearance of dimension.
That is the extent of the artistic flourishes here, though. For the most part, the movie is straightforwardly Family Comedy, Variant Wacky Animals. The kids are more prop-like than the penguins and the relationship between Popper and Gugino’s character only makes sense in the confines of this kind of movie. Gugino’s feelings for Popper seem based on nothing other than what the particular scene she’s in requires of her.
Mr. Popper’s Penguin is not, as inoffensive comedy goes, horrible, but it’s not delightful either. On a scale of pain-felt-by-grown-ups, I’d rate it less painful than Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer but not as endurable as even the lackluster Kung Fu Panda 2. C
Rated PG for mild rude humor and some language. Directed by Mark Waters and written by Sean Anders, John Morris and Jared Stern (from the novel by Richard and Florence Atwater), Mr. Popper’s Penguins is an hour and 35 minutes long and distributed by 20th Century Fox.