No matter how tastefully a Manhattan duplex is decorated, it isn’t a suitable habitat for half a dozen Gentoo penguins. Nor is a workaholic real-estate developer with no experience in animal care an appropriate caretaker. Nor is a fried-fish sandwich acceptable penguin food. And really, these shouldn’t even be concerns that come to mind when watching Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a loose adaptation/update of the classic 1938 children’s book whose premise—about a man (Jim Carrey) who unexpectedly receives the titular animals in the mail and transforms his home in order to keep them—presumes a certain degree of whimsy. But it’s hard to ignore these reasonable points when they’re raised by a zookeeper (Clark Gregg) who’s the film’s only rational character, and who therefore serves as the villain. Boo! Hiss! Carrey should be allowed to keep those penguins because they’re cute! His kids love them!
Before it becomes an unintentional homage to Confessions: Animal Hoarding, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is the story of a boy whose explorer father loves him but neglects him in favor of his career. Once the boy grows to manhood, he does the same thing to his former wife (Carla Gugino) and their daughter and son. Promised a partner position in his real-estate firm if he can secure the sale of Central Park restaurant Tavern On The Green—which in the film is owned by Angela Lansbury, and never filed for bankruptcy or closed—Carrey tries to finagle the deal while grappling with the exotic animals that were his dad’s final gift to him. At the same time, he looks for a way to win back his family.
Directed by Mark Waters (Mean Girls), Mr. Popper’s Penguins reins in its rubber-faced star, leaving most of the rote physical comedy (and overabundance of fart jokes) to his nonhuman counterparts, comprised of a combination of CGI and real penguins. The film’s major setpiece involves the birds destroying a swank benefit at the Guggenheim by sliding down the spiral gallery and into an orchestra. It isn’t a fraction as funny as an earlier throwaway moment in which Lansbury offers Carrey her hand and he bends to meet it, a frozen smile fixed on his face right up until he makes contact with a kiss. That bit is one of the few sparks of vitality in a film that can’t seem to buy into its own strident message of “family first,” possibly because to prove your love, you apparently have to risk the wrath of everyone from your co-op board to PETA.