by Mel Valentin
"Mr. Popper’s Penguins," loosely (operative word here is “loosely”) based on Richard & Florence Atwater’s 1938 Caldecott-winning children’s book of the same name, returns actor-comedian Jim Carrey (as the eponymous Mr. Popper) to the safe, generally inoffensive material that made him an audience favorite for the better part of two decades (minus, of course, the occasional dud). A family-oriented comedy featuring six, nearly indistinguishable penguins (a combination of live-action, animatronics, and CG), a threadbare storyline centered on a selfish, self-centered businessmen with family issues (as in he’s alienated his kids and former wife), and the usual assortment of pratfalls, unimaginative verbal humor, and (penguin) poop jokes, "Mr. Popper’s Penguins" fails on almost every level (and that’s grading on the family-oriented comedy scale).Mr. Popper’s Penguins centers on the “Mr. Popper” of the title, Thomas Popper, Jr. (Carrey), a super-successful real estate developer with a broken marriage and an unsatisfying, dysfunctional relationship with his children, Janie (Madeline Carroll), an unhappy, boy-obsessed teenager, and Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), a preteen with soccer and, later, penguins, on the brain. Popper lives in a spacious, if coldly decorated, Manhattan condo, alone from the available visible evidence. He still has a thing for his ex-wife, Amanda (Carla Gugino, criminally underused), but she’s moved on to a presumably more fulfilling relationship with a bearded hipster type, Rick (James Tupper). Relationships, of the familial and romantic kind, we’ll soon learn, are really all that matter.
"Penguin poop joke lovers, the line for entry starts on the left."
Being comfortably well-off doesn’t hurt either, of course. At work, Popper cheekily announces his desire to become a partner by paying to engrave a marble slab with his name added to the company’s partners, Franklin (Philip Baker Hall), Reader (Dominic Chianese), and Yates (William Charles Mitchell). Even after Popper closes a thorny deal with a recalcitrant businessman, Mr. Gremmins (Jeffrey Tambor), the partners aren’t willing to add Popper’s name to the masthead, at least not until Popper convinces the notoriously difficult Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury) to sell Tavern on the Green, a longstanding Manhattan landmark, to his company. Popper’s charms, for once, seem unlikely to win over Mrs. Van Gundy, but she’s just one more obstacle to the linear path Popper will have to follow to achieve the appropriate balance between work and family.
The obligatory mid-life lesson comes in the form of six, unimaginatively named penguins shipped to Popper by his recently dead father, Thomas Popper, Sr., a world-class adventurer and explorer who, like the junior Popper, had little time for his family. In other words, the junior Popper has daddy issues. The script paints Popper as emotionally repressed, eager to cover the prolonged absence of his father with material success. It takes six unruly penguins to shake Popper from his cramped, narrow worldview and, you guessed it, reconnect with his children and later, to ensure moviegoers leave the theater on a high emotional note, reconnect with his ex-wife.
Hewing to a tried-and-true formula gives Mr. Popper’s Penguins a dull, predictable path to follow narratively, leaving what little originality the film has firmly in Jim Carrey’s hands. Carrey, however, seems more than happy to revive and revisit comedic antics and routine that moviegoers have seen many, many times before, thus diminishing their potential impact to deliver anything approaching consistent laughs. When Carrey’s not indulging in tired shtick, he’s interacting with the titular penguins, a combination of actual, live penguins, animatronics, and ubiquitous CGI, often meshed haphazardly into individual scenes by director Mark Waters, a director apparently incapable of handling the technical complexities and rigors of live-action/CG filmmaking.Why Waters was chosen to helm "Mr. Popper’s Penguins" remains a mystery. In an undistinguished career primarily directing comedies, Waters’ films have skewed older, not younger. The high-water mark of Waters’ career, "Mean Girls," was, on the evidence of subsequent films, a fluke or, if not a fluke, due less to Waters’ contributions behind the camera and "30 Rock’s" Tiny Fey brilliantly incisive, witty screenplay and a career-best performance from Lindsay Lohan. Unfortunately, with a by-the-numbers screenplay by Sean Anders, John Morris, and Jared Stern and underwhelming performances by a seemingly tired, bored cast, Waters is on his own. The floundering result falls far short of being memorable, let alone watchable by anyone over the age of eight and parents eager for ninety minutes of quiet time.
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originally posted: 06/17/11 04:00:29