Special Delivery: Jim Carrey Keeps Penguins Afloat

City Pulse | June 13, 2011
Loosely based on Florence Atwater's 1938 children's book, "Mr. Popper's Penguins" never completely gels. But that doesn't stop Jim Carrey from using everything in his arsenal of comic physicality to keep his audience entertained. A Jimmy Stuart impersonation and a few Charlie Chaplin duck-walk steps go a long way. As a boy, Tommy Popper grew up knowing his traveling businessman father more by the sound of his dad's voice during nightly radio transmissions than from spending any real time with the old man. As an adult, Carrey's Tom Popper is an exceptionally successful real estate developer living in a top floor Manhattan apartment. Divorced from his wife Amanda (Carla Gugino), Tom spends every other weekend with the couple's children, Janie and Billy. Tom's career priority--becoming a partner at his company--takes a U-turn after he inherits six penguins from his recently deceased dad. Closing a deal to purchase Central Park's Tavern on the Green from Angela Lansbury's character, Mrs. Van Gundy, vies for the attention he gives to the penguins he promises to let Billy keep as a birthday present. The penguins' individual personalities don't go much beyond representative names like "Lovey," "Bitey," and "Stinky." Still, "Mr. Popper's Penguins" is an adequate family film in the end. Its light comic aspirations are exemplified by Mr. Popper's perky secretary Pippy (nicely played by Ophelia Lovibond) and her peculiar proclivity for the persistent practice of alliteration pertaining to the letter p.

Audiences go to a Jim Carrey movie to watch the spastic comedian make funny faces and react to outrageous situations with his trademark rubber band physicality. We know there will be a romantic hook that, however strained, will keep us hanging on to the hope that his character will not go through life alone. Such is the narrative terrain in "Mr. Popper's Penguins."

A sentimental opening sequence introduces us to the child version of Carrey's character, who his absent dad calls "Tippy Toe" during their radio transmissions. Tippy Toe and his father share their nightly conversations with a sense of wonder about the far-away places the senior Poppers is visiting at the time. Locations like New Guinea and Romania cause Tommy's imagination to soar even as his mom tucks him into bed. Cut to the adult Mr. Popper living a successful but unfulfilled life. He has changed from a curious boy into a cynical executioner of real estate deals. With his trusty assistant Pippy beside him Popper closes a deal on Manhattan's famed Flat Iron building by convincing Jeffrey Tambor's character Mr. Gremmins that the time has come for him to pursue his dreams of sailing around the world. It's one of the film's best scenes. Tom and Pippy conjure up a vision of sailing excitement for Mr. Gremmins with the aid of office props. Carrey splashes water in Gremmins's face while Pippy aims a fan and tears shreds of paper. Mr. Popper is happiest when he's drawing on his mind's eye to close an expensive deal. He doesn't have a nurturing bone in his body.

The arrival of six penguins changes Tom Popper, if only because his children and ex-wife of 15-years guilt him into a mindset of caring for the odd little creatures as a way of winning back their trust. The filmmakers make the time-honored mistake of going too far with animal fart and poop humor, and it takes away from the hoped-for effect of inuring Mr. Popper, and the audience, to the waddling animals. You probably won't come away from the movie with any newfound appreciation for penguins, but you'll get what you came for from Jim Carrey.

Rated PG. 94 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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