The main character’s name is Mr. Popper, & he has penguins. That, if memory serves, is about the extent to which the new film Mr. Popper’s Penguins is “based on” Florence & Richard Atwater’s 1938 children’s-book classic of the same name.
In the movie, Popper (Jim Carrey) is a high-powered New York businessman who lives in a sleek, spotless Manhattan apartment. He’s a divorced dad, insufficiently attentive to his ex (Carla Gugino) & two kids, an adolescent daughter & a preadolescent son. He himself had a literally distant relationship with his own father, a globetrotting fortune-hunter who kept in touch with him as a kid via a short-wave radio in his bedroom.
The old man’s legacy arrives, in crates: six smelly, rambunctious, destructive penguins. Popper is desperate to get rid of them, until his kids come over to visit & fall in love with them, & Popper sees that the birds can help him heal the rift with his family…
You get the idea. Popper gives the penguins names like Stinky, Loudy and Bitey (in the book, they were named for famous explorers), & wackiness & warm-hearted family bonding ensue. Even if this kids-movie template weren’t numbingly over-familiar, & even if, in real life, keeping penguins as permanent residents in a luxury high-rise apartment weren’t a horribly unwise & cruel idea, Mr. Popper’s Penguins curiously doubles down on lousy, ill-advised plot devices, like making a zookeeper (Clark Gregg) the calculating bad guy.
That said, it’s a rather agreeable movie. The 8-year-old who joined me for the screening found the antics of the penguins, a mixture of real & computer-generated birds, to be sophisticated high comedy, & I must say that I thought Carrey was in good form here—he’s poised & elegantly costumed, & keeps the manic stuff a bit more restrained than usual, to his & the movie’s benefit. I also liked the black & white animated end titles, in which penguins cavort to “Ice Ice Baby.”
The company includes such vets as Angela Lansbury, Jeffery Tambor, Dominic Chianese, David Krumholtz & Philip Baker Hall, all game in perfectly superfluous roles. My own favorite member of the cast, however, was Ophelia Lovibond as Pippi, Popper’s loyal assistant who speaks alliteratively in “P” words, simply because she looks exactly like an English actress named “Ophelia Lovibond” should look.