Mr. Popper’s Penguins? More like Mr. Pooper’s Penguins! If you think that joke is funny — and you’re in elementary school — you’ll likely love Jim Carrey’s farts-and-flippers comedy, which, though exceedingly dumb, is at least very smart about what appeals to 4- to 10-year-old kids, fans of Happy Feet, March of the Penguins, and YouTube animal videos.
George Popper, played by Carrey, is a gangly motormouth divorcé and high-powered real-estate agent who hopes to turn Central Park’s Tavern on the Green into a giant residential tower (George is apparently unaware of the Landmarks Commission). Real estate is dry fodder for a kids’ movie, but fear not! Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) is not concerned with meta-minded, Shrek-style comedies drenched in adult-friendly references. This is straight-up silly slapstick, from the moment the penguins (a mix of CGI and live animals) arrive to revive Popper’s heart, destroy his apartment, poop in his toilet, fart on his enemies, and reunite his family.
Carrey fills his apartment with ice, snow, and huge silly-putty grins. As Popper’s mental state unravels and he reconnects with his ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino), the actor nearly pulls off a fine balance between lovable eccentric and nut job. Carrey is as tame as he’s ever been here, and thankfully minus the comic malice of his Grinch, Count Olaf, or Riddler. But when Popper breaks down in front of his kids, I was reminded less of the haunted sadness of Jimmy Stewart, one of Carrey’s acting heroes, than the unhinged desperation of Mel Gibson in The Beaver.
Another of Carrey’s heroes is Dick Van Dyke, whose elastic, exaggerated playfulness he has sometimes topped. What Carrey has never captured, however, is Van Dyke’s wide-open sunniness. And in the case of this film, he certainly hasn’t topped Van Dyke’s hoofing in Mary Poppins, still the greatest tap-dancing-penguin scene in cinema history. But never mind; kids won’t know what they’re missing. The penguins are that cute!