By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
The younger the children you take to see Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the more they’ll like it.
As for the rest of us, well, this fizzle of a family film is remarkably and resoundingly resistible.
That’s because, as a gimmicky kidflick, it doesn’t trust youngsters to knowingly respond, and thus speaks down to them to an insufferable degree.
In the lazy and bland Mr. Popper’s Penguins, neither Jim Carrey nor the six penguins with whom he co-stars are shown to any kind of advantage. The charm and appeal of all seven of them is squandered.
Of course, playing opposite four-legged creatures is nothing new to Carrey. After all, it was Ace Ventura: Pet Detective that launched him into the superstardom stratosphere in 1994.
He does it again here in a kids’ comedy that’s loosely based on the 1938 children’s book of the same name by Richard and Florence Atwater that won a Newbery Award in 1939.
It’s the tale of driven New York real estate developer Tom Popper, played by Carrey, a divorced and distracted father of two, who has made his share of moral compromises and emotional sacrifices in the name of succeeding at his life’s work.
Then he receives an unusual gift from his estranged father — six Gentoo penguins. Suddenly he has to care for this penguin six-pack — and be the kind of caretaker he rarely if ever is with his own children — and turn his lavish apartment into a wintry haven.
Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) showcases his main ingredients — Captain, Bitey, Nimrod, Lovey, Loudy, Stinky… oh, and Jim — and builds the rest of the bland fable’s halfhearted elements around them. The plot, characters, dialogue, relationships, settings, and themes all get short shrift.
For the penguin footage — and there’s a lot of it — Waters straddles the line between CGI and traditional by using real penguins for much of the bits, but also resorting to computer-generated embellishments. And, admittedly, he does it so seamlessly that it’s remarkably difficult to tell the difference between live action and animation.
He also keeps things as broad and obvious as can be from the first frame on, whether he’s telling his story, setting up childish slapstick bits, sweeping snow off the path of the film’s overly familiar and much-tread-upon central theme, or sledgehammering home the film’s heavyhanded, repetitive message.
Our inherent fascination with these tuxedoed fowl — exploited entertainingly in such recent penguin-centric films as March of the Penguins, Happy Feet, Farce of the Penguins, The Pebble and the Penguin, and Surf’s Up — is trotted out once again but without much enthusiasm or conviction.
The sometimes strangely strident screenplay by Sean Anders, John Morris, and Jared Stern wins over only the youngest viewers. For everyone else, the feeling persists that this material, at least as developed here, must have played a heck of a lot better on the page than on the screen.
Carrey seems either slightly embarrassed by, or perhaps disinterested in, the material, which explains why, in an effort to raise the entertainment level, he breaks character several times to give us trademark bits, impressions, or facial contortions of comedian Jim Carrey rather than actor Carrey as the conceived title character.
Come to Popper, he’s saying. But we don’t.
Even when we laugh, we don’t. And we don’t laugh much anyway.
So we’ll waddle toward 2 stars out of 4 for this one-trick pony, Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
Cute, belly-flopping birds. Cutesy flopping movie.