Mr. Popper’s Penguins

There’s really nothing Jim Carrey can do about it; the words “Ace” and “Ventura” will be among the first dozen or so in his obituary. But when you really stop to think about it, the rubber-faced, manic Jim Carrey that most of us grew up with hasn’t really been seen since 2003’s Bruce Almighty, more than eight years ago.

The string of calm(er), more subdued performances continues with Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a perfectly fun family film that finds Carrey playing second (well, seventh) fiddle to a gaggle of flightless Antarctic waterfowl. And he doesn’t speak out of his butt once.

Based (though not at all, really) on the classic 1938 children’s book, the movie tells the story of Tom Popper (Carrey), a wealthy New Yorker who snaps up iconic buildings for his investment firm. He’s estranged from his wife (Carla Gugino) and only has alternate weekends with his two adolescent children. And he’s still dealing with daddy issues of his own, since he only talked to his always-off-exploring father intermittently by ham radio back in the day.

Popper’s latest mission is to wrangle Tavern on the Green from its third-generation owner Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury). Just as he gets the assignment, though, he also get the news that his father has passed away, and that the only thing left to him in the will was a six-pack of Gentoo penguins.

Initially, of course, Popper tries getting rid of the birds by calling Animal Control, Fish & Game, and even the Sanitation Department—all to no avail. It’s only when his kids discover the way-cool birds that he begins to come around and realize that having a rookery (yep, that’s the collective term) of penguins isn’t all that bad. Sure, he has to keep his penthouse apartment’s windows open during the dead of winter, and yes, he needs to keep a bounty of fresh sardines on hand at all times, but things could be worse—at least they don’t claw the furniture.

You can probably see how everything will wrap up after only watching the first half-hour, but that doesn’t make the ride any less enjoyable. Actually, many subplots that could have veered into here-we-go-again territory are steered in a fresh new direction—not the least of which is Popper’s teenage daughter Janie (Madeline Carroll); after starting the movie as yet another grumpy, no-one-gets-me teenage girl, she actually evolves into a sympathetic character. Go figure.

Gugino is charming and sweet as Popper’s estranged wife, and it’s just flat-out great to see Lansbury again; this marks only the second time (with 2005’s Nanny McPhee) in almost 30 years that she’s appeared on the big screen. Even Popper’s overly-alliterative secretary Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond) adds to the fun, and that, per se, was a pretty preposterous performance to pull off.

Director Mark Waters (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Mean Girls) has done something that’s all too rare these days—make a charming and witty movie about a man and his kooky animals (Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke, I’m looking at you.) There are plenty of funny moments, but Mr. Popper’s Penguins never veers into Stupidville. No, you won’t find yourself doubled-over in laughter, but the eye-rolling is kept to an absolute minimum, and there are quite a few chuckle-worthy bits.

Screenwriters Sean Anders and John Morris, who penned two of last year’s funniest screenplays, Hot Tub Time Machine and She’s Out of My League, prove they have the chops for kids fare, too. There are, of course, the requisite penguin poop jokes, but somehow they work in the moment, and there’s also plenty of adult-friendly humor to keep moms and dads from nodding off.

All in all, Carrey deftly handles what could have been an easy excuse for him to slip back into ‘Allllllrighty then’ mode, and he wisely lets the penguins carry the show.

No, we may never quite get the image of butt-talking Jim Carrey out of our memory bank, but at least he’s learned in recent years that sometimes sublime trumps ridiculous.

3/5 stars