Even though it's a somewhat crass, definitely commercial adaptation of a beloved children's book, Mr. Popper's Penguins isn't quite the abomination it could have been. It's not a good movie, but not an entirely insulting one either, trading on Jim Carrey's remarkable physical skills and some moments of clever wordplay to draw laughs out of plenty of weary adults. See it for the air conditioning and cheap babysitting, but stay for a shred of surprising charm.
Carrey, slipping comfortably and a little lazily into a role he occupied more than 13 years ago in Liar, Liar, is a high-powered Manhattan real estate agent whose broken family life and sterile apartment are all a result of-- you guessed it-- unresolved daddy issues. Papa Popper was a global explorer who wasn't around much for our Mr. Popper, and when Papa dies he wills his son not the lifetime worth of memories he missed out on, but six penguins, who arrive in a sealed crate from the Arctic and have no trouble taking up residence in Mr. Popper's Park Avenue high-rise. The logistical problems are endless, as they were in the gentle 1939 children's book that loosely inspires the movie, but we're operating with kid logic here-- if you're going to put a penguin in an apartment, you may as well turn that apartment into a skating rink complete with ice luge.
The six penguins-- all of whom have names, most of whom poop in inconvenient places and one of whom farts on cue-- help Mr. Popper reconnect with his kids (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton) and ex-wife (Carla Gugino), though there's little evidence he was all that awful to them to begin with. The nattering presence of a zoo official played by Clark Gregg promises a grand finale caper that actually kind of delivers, and Popper's conflicts with a nosy neighbor (David Krumholtz) and trickster doorman (Desmin Borges) make for a nice C-story that unfortunately peters out. The real standout, though, is Ophelia Lovibond, playing Popper's assistant with a real affection for the letter p; rattling off phrases like "Punctuality is a particular priority for this prospect" and smoothly mopping up Popper's mistakes, she's a fairly funny, very weird character, and evidence that screenwriters Sean Anders, John Morris and Jared Stern put a little bit of extra care into their work.
Director Mark Waters, who made two genuinely terrific teen movies with Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, lends a visual flair that so many movies in this genre lack; you care about the movie a little more because you can tell he did. When a penguin floods the bathroom, we watch him swimming through a frosted glass door before it breaks; when Mr. Popper heads to an event at the spiral-shaped Guggenheim Museum, you'd better believe the penguins will be sliding down those ramps. It's as if he, the writers and even Carrey knew they were working with sub-par material, and worked hard enough so that the audience might appreciate the effort. I've seen kids laugh hysterically at absolute garbage movies, but I like to think they were laughing just a bit harder at Mr. Popper's Penguins because it actually tried.
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