Feeling like a desperate bid to revive that old “Ace Ventura” magic with Jim Carrey bringing a sextet of penguins into his tony Manhattan apartment, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is actually rooted in the old Disney live-action comedy tradition, with its colorful stars, ridiculous situations and theme of family unity. Carrey’s headlong dive back into the family-movie pool will make a bit of a splash with its target tyke audience, but this Fox release won’t be popping up on his career-highlights reel.
While husband-and-wife co-authors Richard and Florence Atwater set their quaint ’30s-era children’s novel in the small American town of Stillwater, the film unfolds in the slicker, fancier climes of present-day Manhattan, where hotshot commercial real-estate agent Tom Popper (Carrey) lives in a hyper-mod condo, alienated from his ex-wife, Amanda (Carla Gugino), and possibly even more so from his teenage daughter, Janie (Madeline Carroll), and younger son, Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton). Carrey at first makes Popper come across as a shark, whose No. 1 goal is to enter the tight circle of his firm’s partners (Philip Baker Hall, Dominic Chianese, William C. Mitchell).
Laid out in a brief prelude, Popper’s childhood was marked by a distant relationship with his adventurer dad, forever absent on treks and keeping in touch with his son via short-wave radio chats. Now, news of his father’s death hardly fazes Popper, who hasn’t seen him in years. But when Dad gifts son with two crates containing Antarctic penguins on ice, Popper’s life is turned upside down.
Under the workmanlike direction of Mark Waters (“Freaky Friday,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles”), the movie centers around the fundamental gimmick of pitting Carrey and his trademark physical comedy against a group of scurrying and noisy penguins (lensed with a combination of live-action shots and well-rendered CGI animation), which seem to take to Popper’s pad like fish to water, even settling down in a cozy corner of his freezer. Preposterous, of course, and the movie habitually reminds the viewer there’s no way Popper’s neighbors can’t be noticing the sudden chaos that has descended on their exclusive uptown co-op — though nothing is ever done about it, even when Popper turns his place into a penguin-friendly snow field and ice rink.
Key to the comedy is Popper’s parental guilt: Aware that his work has kept him too much away from his kids, he realizes Janie and Billy love the little grounded birds at first sight, and in fact demand them as pets. What’s a dad to do but to nurture the critters, even though the “penguin expert” at the New York Zoo (Clark Gregg) wants them for his own sinister, supposedly zoological needs?
In a mechanical screenplay by several hands (Sean Anders, John Morris, Jared Stern), Popper’s parental project goes predictably out of control. This is perhaps most cleverly expressed during a fundraising party at the Guggenheim, where Popper tries to convince Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury), the crusty, imperious owner of Central Park’s legendary Tavern on the Green, to sell the property to his firm. With a little ice and water, plus the Guggenheim’s famed sloped ramp, the penguins slip and slide and cause all sorts of problems. The script, however, rams its points and intentions across, no matter how little sense they make, perhaps cynically assuming most kids won’t notice the jarring narrative bumps.
Following his terrific performance in the R-rated “I Love You Phillip Morris,” Carrey has turned to a soft PG vehicle, and shows too much strain to make the comedy viable. Occasional asides from the gifted comic, such as when he nails an impersonation of Jimmy Stewart or a slo-mo run in real time, come off as distractions rather than magic moments.
Unlike Gugino (in a vanilla role) and Ophelia Lovibond (in an annoying one), Gregg and Lansbury (now in her eighth decade onscreen, in a substantial role in which she dominates her scenes) pleasurably give Carrey something to play against. Both actors portray hard-hearted New York operators, offering a counterpoint to the movie’s endless visual love notes to the Big Apple: With Florian Ballhaus’ shiny cinematography and Stuart Wurtzel’s upscale production design, the city is presented as a glorious winter wonderland. Composer Rolfe Kent accents his usual dark-tinged tropes with variations on Gershwin, which is almost as nice as the pic’s sweet tributes to Chaplin.