The movie Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which opens Friday, is benign enough. It’s a vehicle for the rubber-faced, preternaturally young, often gleefully immature Jim Carrey, and it features a parcel of penguins (yes, I had to look that up) who do CGI tricks such as fart and slide down the length of the Guggenheim spiral. Judging from the reaction at the screening I attended, this will delight your children. But don’t expect a faithful adaptation of the classic 1938 storybook—Mr. Popper has come a long way from humble house-painting.
In Popper 2.0, directed by Mean Girls’ Mark Waters, the title character is a ruthless executive at a New York architecture firm, hoping to make partner by sweet-talking elderly owners into selling their landmark buildings. It’s not that Mr. Popper is a bad guy exactly—in the opening credits, we see him as a child, breathlessly communicating via CB radio with his father, who is off exploring the world, missing his son’s life in the process—but he’s fallen victim to that disease Peter Pan so famously feared: growing up and losing his sense of wonder. The adult Mr. Popper is a divorced workaholic father of two who lives in a pristine bachelor pad, devoid of any personality—the quirkiest things in his life are his personal assistant, Pippy, whose fondness for alliterative sentences using the letter P is a running gag, and his inexplicable tendency to say “yabsolutely.” His ex-wife (Carla Gugino) and kids call him “Popper,” indicating that he’s been as absentee as his own father. But then Popper Sr. dies, leaving a note in his will that he’s sent his son a souvenir from Antarctica. Which is where the other title characters come in.
Yes, the “souvenir” is a penguin, who promptly poops on Mr. Popper’s shoes, floods his apartment and makes him late for an important business meeting with Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury), the proprietor of Tavern on the Green, the firm’s latest target. Soon after, for reasons not entirely explained, but likely having to do with a poor phone connection to the Arctic Circle, a crate bearing five additional penguins arrives. Mr. Popper calls the zoo to have them removed, but before he can fob off his flightless fowl his son arrives for a birthday celebration and mistakes the penguins for his present. (His mother doesn’t flinch at this ludicrous largesse; in fact, no one—not even the surly teenage girl—is anything but thrilled by the new additions to the family.) Mr. Popper likes the mantle of beloved dad so much—not to mention the new-found sparkle in his ex-wife’s eye—that he decides to keep the birds as pets, even though his co-op board forbids it, and before long he’s potty-training, packing his multi-million dollar living room with snow, and leading the penguins around Manhattan like a modern-day Maria von Trapp.
If Carrey had let his freak flag fly, amping up the googly eyed, slack-jawed, silly-voiced antics that made him famous in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber and The Cable Guy, Mr. Popper’s Penguins would be near-unbearable—another in a long line of comedies about a dad in arrested development who wins back his estranged family simply by being a kind-hearted moron.
But instead Carrey is admirably restrained; in fact, when he does unleash his spastic brand of comedy in one climactic scene, it feels forced. His Mr. Popper is not just a caricature but a real person, even a sympathetic hero. You find yourself rooting for him when he goes up against the movie’s numerous (albeit flaccid) villains, which include his trio of geriatric bosses, a nosy neighbor and the zoo official who plots to seize the penguins. And, of course, you find yourself rooting for him when it comes to winning back his family … and winning over the brittle Mrs. Van Gundy, whose restaurant means more to Mr. Popper than he initially lets on.
There’s not much that will go over kids’ heads, which means that everything from the comedy to the characters’ relationships to the heartwarming wrap-up is broad and easy, but it’s far from the sophomoric slit-your-wrists slapstick of, say, Gulliver’s Travels.
In other words, will you live through—and even, possibly, like—Mr. Popper’s Penguins? As the man himself might say, yabsolutely.